How Crime, Corruption, and Murder Are Hidden in the Elusive Black Market Stages of Antiquities Trafficking

Customs Officials Credit: Standart
Customs Officials
Credit: Standart

There is an on going debate among scholars studying antiquities trafficking — illegally removing cultural artefacts from one country and smuggling it to another for sale — as to the level of organized crime involvement. In a recent article in the International Journal of Cultural Property I try to crack this debate wide open through the use of explicit examples of crime within the trade.

I argue that the trade does not operate as a hierarchy like traditional organized crime does. Rather than have a mafia boss at the top and minions carrying out orders below, the antiquities trade functions through everyday people who are looking to supplement their income. This network structure appears disorganized to us observing from the outside, but in reality it is a highly evolved structure that many crime groups have gravitated toward. The strength of this structure is that it is impossible to cut the organization off at the head, like police do with the mafia. In criminal networks, “each participant is a replaceable cog in a series of criminal relationships analogous to a ‘plate of spaghetti [where] every piece seems to touch each other, but you are never sure where it all leads” (Green 1969: 9). Networks are the form of the modern criminal group.

The role of organized crime has preoccupied many scholars studying the antiquities trade. Previous research has focused on those individuals conducting the looting and selling; however, I follow Paul Bator’s observation that there are four stages in the trade, each potentially filled by multiple individuals: 1) Looter/Looting 2) Early Stage Middleman/smuggling 3) Late Stage Middleman/laundering and selling 4) Collector/purchasing. Since the majority of researchers focus on people looting and selling, they are only observing the first, third, and fourth stages. This approach has its merits since these are highly visible stages. The second stage, however, is obscured in black market activity.

Medici with Euphronisos Krater Credit: University of Geneva
Medici with Euphronisos Krater
Credit: University of Geneva

The second stage, and the network as whole, is revealed through carefully compiling disparate sources. Take this example from Afghanistan.

“Subsistence diggers, local citizens that turn to looting due to economic hardship, are the primary looters… Subsistence diggers sell artifacts to intermediaries who visit villages or archaeological sites. The primary exit for Afghan antiquities appears to be Pakistan…. [a] popular [route] among smugglers. Narcotics smugglers are known to cross easily into Pakistan at the unmanned border crossing at Baramcha… In her analysis of the opium trade, Gretchen Peters details how these organized smuggling groups operate along the Afghan-Pakistani border, engaging in any profitable enterprise including trafficking of narcotics, arms, humans, antiquities, and other commodities, as well as crimes including kidnapping and theft. Once in Pakistan, antiquities are sold in border towns and transported to major cities. Commercial airlines and ships transport the artifacts to cities like Sharjah or Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which has grown into the region’s primary transit country… Antiquities are smuggled hidden in commonplace items like furniture, in falsified cargo manifests, or in false compartments. United Arab Emirates is an arterial route for antiquities leaving the region for market countries. Illicit antiquities from the entire region, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan, as well as countries outside the immediate area like Turkey, are sent to Sharjah before being sent internationally… Upon arrival in Sharjah, antiquities are purchased by individuals with connections abroad, who collaborate with corrupt customs officials in order to export them. Many artifacts then head to the traditional European transit country of Switzerland… Arriving in Europe, antiquities have passed through many hands, but now enter the same established routes detailed in the Medici case and other examples. Repatriated artifacts indicate travel from Switzerland and Germany to market countries like United Kingdom and Belgium” (Page 121).

Is organized crime involved in the antiquities trade? While antiquities take a backseat to narcotics and arms in law enforcement reports, I was able to find reference to “vases, statues, and tools,” “3x antique,” and “antics [sic] statues” in raids, illuminating the elusive second stage. I state, “The second stage has the most variable population in terms of skills and, therefore, has connections to other forms of crime. As a multibillion-dollar industry with less risk than narcotics or arms, antiquities draw diverse profit-seeking participants, including established crime groups. Researchers seeking connections between antiquities and narcotics, arms, human trafficking, and other illicit commodities should focus on the second stage. Likewise, corruption is almost solely found in this stage, including public officials, police, ambassadors, and customs agents. Violent crime, generally rare, is likewise primarily relegated to this stage when it does occur” (Page 133). What sorts of crime is found in the second stage? Well it includes Afghanistan’s Haqqani Network, the Turkish mafia, Armenia human traffickers, Bulgarian drug dealers, Lebanese weapons smugglers, and other traditional crime organizations. The most telling example is the Red Mafiya.

“If there is a central figure in the Red Mafiya, then it is man with the moniker the ‘Brainy Don,’ who was labeled by the FBI as the “most dangerous mobster in the world.” When he is not running the largest laundering schemes in the history of Canada and United States and taking out US$100,000 assassination contracts on journalists that write about him, he engages in a wide range of art crime. Antiquities stolen from churches, synagogues, museums, and collectors in Russia, Germany, and Eastern European countries are smuggled to ‘front’ stores operated by his partners in the Moscow-based Solntsevskaya crime group, which launders antiquities onto the licit market” (Page 133).

There is no doubt that traditional organized crime is involved in the antiquities trade, but organize crime does not run operation from the ground to buyer. Instead, it exists in a small niche of the network. It has been hidden in the past by the elusive, black market second stage. Building on the network approach, the article’s foundation is set on case studies that aim to answer lingering questions within the field: Do antiquities fund the Taliban and Al Qaeda? What role does the Internet play in antiquities trafficking?

Let’s begin with whether antiquities fund the Taliban or Al Qaeda. I explored the route that antiquities take from the ground through the most common route, Pakistan and Sharjah. The Afghan Transit Trade Agreement allows for a massive quantity of good to pass to Sharjah from Afghan ports with little oversight. From Sharjah the shipments head toward other transit countries like Switzerland and market countries like Germany, UK, and US. So is the Taliban involved with the antiquities before they leave Afghanistan? Not really. But they do get a cut.

“The two major smuggling organizations are Hezb-i-Islami and the Haqqani network, who work closely with the Taliban. In fact, the Haqqani network is recognized as the most dangerous insurgent group in Afghanistan and is considered the Taliban’s chief ally. The Haqqani network smuggles illicit commodities into Pakistan, primarily narcotics, where it exchanges them for arms that are in turn sold to the Taliban. Assuming that looters receive around 2% of the final sale price similar to elsewhere, the bulk of Afghan antiquities money goes to early stage intermediaries in the region and late stage intermediaries in transit or market countries, meaning that the Haqqani network and other smugglers may receive a significant amount through antiquities. While affiliate organizations may be profiting, it is doubtful that the Taliban would handle antiquities if they do not even smuggle their own weapons. However, businessmen smuggling commodities in collaboration with the Haqqani network pay a tax to the Taliban to operate safely, “one Afghan source explained how the Taliban profits from illicit antiquities, stating ‘businessmen who smuggle precious stone, sculptures and other historic artifacts. . .pay dues to the Taliban to avoid trouble on road’” (Campbell 2013: 121). Based on currently available sources, this tax appears to be the only source of funding for the Taliban related to antiquities, though all commodities smuggled across the border are a facet of the arms trade that supplies the Taliban.”

What does that mean for Al Qaeda? Well, the Taliban governs a territory, so it can exact a tax. Al Qaeda has no such authority and generates most of its money though donations. However, recent Al Qaeda attacks have been funded by crimes like robberies, credit card fraud, and drug trafficking, so it is possible that antiquities sales could fund future attacks if the group was able to buy cheap artefacts from subsistence looters.

What role does the Internet play in antiquities trafficking? Charles Stanish argued a few years ago that eBay was killing the antiquities market by introducing a large number of fakes. Unfortunately, since then major antiquities dealers known to sell looted artefacts have moved toward Internet auctions and experienced record sales. But not every collector can afford statues and not every dealer sells these large ticket items. In order to examine the role of the Internet in the trade, I focused a single eBay dealer, Silenos Coins, who has allegedly sold looted coins for years.

Sources detail the actions of the owner of Silenos Coins, a Bulgarian national whose brother was Prosecutor General Nikola Filchev.

“…Filchev’s brother has a history of run-ins with the law between 1994 through 2007 over illicit antiquities. He has not been convicted, but researchers suggest this is due to [the fact his brother] held a protected position while Filchev was in power… Charges were first brought against Filchev’s brother in April 1994 for antiquities trafficking and he faced charges again in December 1997. In May 1998, he was arrested at a checkpoint attempting to smuggle antiquities across the border to sell them to ‘an international organized crime organization.’ Filchev’s brother was placed in custody, but prosecutor Kiril Ivanov released him ‘without giving due reason’ and he left the country before his trial, while Ivanov received a promoted from Filchev. In 1999, Filchev’s brother moved to Hackensack, New Jersey, where he opened a business named Silenos Coins and Antiquities that sold artifacts on eBay… In March 1999, German officials captured a package of illicit antiquities that he was shipping to himself and police also identified eight previous packages that he had sent to the United States through Germany.

When German officials sent the details of Filchev’s brother’s case to Bulgaria, the prosecutor’s office requested all documents related to the case and subsequently buried them from public view. Journalists who mentioned the German incident were brought into the prosecutor’s office for a false interrogation meant to intimidate them and Filchev told subordinates, ‘publishers and all people connected to them should be pressed not to allow such publications in the future.’ According to one of Filchev’s prosecutors, Nikolay Kolev, Filchev told his staff that a case would not be pursued against his brother for antiquities trafficking. Shortly after speaking to the media about the incident, Kolev was murdered. The contract killer who murdered Kolev was part of an organized crime group linked to Filchev and the prosecutor’s office never investigated Kolev’s murder. Kolev’s widow won a human rights case based on the fact that the murder had not been properly investigated and the court ordered the case back open. Filchev is currently under investigation for ordering Kolev’s murder, as well as a lawyer’s murder in an unrelated case, and other crimes. It should be noted that Filchev is a polarizing figure in Bulgaria, so some accusations and court cases may be political maneuvers by political opponents.

Filchev left office in 2006 and Silenos Coins disappeared from eBay in June 2007. In March 2007, the new prosecutor general had publically announced that his office was tracking the brother’s online records. Since eBay users in 2007 could leave feedback up to 90 days following purchase, Filchev’s brother appears to have stopped selling under Silenos Coins immediately following the announcement…. the Bulgarian court case is pending while he remains abroad.” (Pages 123-124).

Internet auction sites’ uniform templates give the appearance of legitimacy; however, in reality there is little to no oversight as to what items are listed on these sites. While obvious items like human body parts are no longer sold on eBay, there exists a criminal element behind template listings. “Silenos Coins’ eBay records reveal… seller feedback …total[ing] 51,808 transactions; however, customer requests for feedback suggest that not every transaction was reviewed. Therefore, any estimates based on eBay feedback are conservative. Sales prices are only listed on reviews left between November 14, 2006, and June 16, 2007. During this seven-month period, 4515 transactions occurred ranging between US$0.99 and US$481.50 and totaling US$109,109.64. This equates to an average price of US$24.17 per transaction. With 51,808 reviewed transactions, it can be conservatively estimated that Silenos Coins earned US$1,251,993.85 in the seven years and four months that it operated between 2000 and 2007… Silenos Coins reveals the element hidden behind innocuous listings on auction sites” (Page 131).

Relative Populations of the Antiquities Network  Credit: Author
Relative Populations of the Antiquities Network
Credit: Author

In summary, the illicit antiquities trade is incredibly complex and ever-changing, which means it is best described as a loosely-connected network where participants are constantly joining or leaving. There is no hierarchy and participants range from farmers to mafia members to academics. They can take part one time or they can do it over and over. Despite this complex population of participants and lack of a hierarchy, the trade follows repeating patterns based on the political, cultural, and economic structures in each country. Rather than focus on individuals, I argue that disrupting the network will have an immediate, as well as long-term, effect on the trade. Those laundering artefacts onto the legal market are the smallest population and are tied to store fronts, so disrupting this group affects the entire network. Similarly, middlemen in the second stage are often jack-of-all trade smugglers, so combating smuggling of any illicit goods affects this group. According to criminologist Marcus Felson, crime prevented is crime depleted, so if you remove “convergence settings” like bars, clubs, or coffee houses were looters and smugglers interact then these people either find riskier places to meet or stop meeting at all. Of course the best way to prevent looting of antiquities is for collectors in the UK, US, and other market countries to stop buying artefacts without suitable paperwork. Buying grey market antiquities is interacting directly or indirectly with a criminal network and in other trafficking networks these people are held as collaborators.

Find the full article here: The Illicit Antiquities Trade as a Transnational Criminal Network: Characterizing and Anticipating Trafficking of Cultural Heritage, International Journal of Cultural Property, 2013, 20: 113-153.