Thursday, 28 January 2010

Antiquities and Jihadists

Earlier this month I drew attention to the speech of Giuseppe Proietti linking Mohamed Atta to the attempt to sell antiquities in Germany. My prompt had been the Fall number of the Journal of Art Crime.

I now see that the February number of the Art Newspaper has also taken up the story (Cristina Ruiz, "9/11 hijacker attempted to sell Afghan loot: Mohammed Atta offered artefacts to German archaeologist", January 27, 2010). Ruiz gives credit to the Journal of Art Crime.

If this story is accurate, based apparently on a security report from the German intelligence services, then there are more serious issues at stake. Archaeologists have been raising the issue of the looting on archaeological sites to provide material for the market. And there have been concerns about the way that archaeological material has been used to fund organised crime (or, in this case, terrorism).

What if those buying looted antiquities derived from Afghanistan inadvertently (or "in good faith") helped to fund the attacks on the Twin Towers? It makes the provocative comments of a senior North American academic, quoted in an interview in the New York Times (Robin Pogrebin, "$200 Million Gift Prompts a Debate Over Antiquities ", April 1, 2006), seem more than inappropriate. In talking about archaeologists who hold an ethical position, the archaeology professor is reported to have said:
''The jihadists, as I would call them now -- who think that to even publish anywhere an item that doesn't have a provenance is forbidden -- this is an utterly ridiculous position,'' he continued. ''If you took that position, we wouldn't know anything about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those were found by Bedouin in caves beside the Dead Sea. None of them were found by archaeologists. If you followed the purists, you would totally ignore it.''
I have commented before on one of the responses to this debate.

Imagine a collector of antiquities justifying an acquisition in these (fictitious) terms: "This sculpture may have been sold by jihadists who needed money to fight NATO forces in Afghanistan".

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Cultural Property Observer said...

David- SAFE brought this same Atta story up at the Italian MOU hearing in 2005. I hope neither they nor the Italian Government will stoop to that level this time around as well.

To the extent you and others insist on bringing this up, why shouldn't we also address the archaeological communities dalliances with Saddam Hussein's regime and the Oriental Institute’s current love affair with the Mullahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran?

As to the idea that antiquities fund criminal activity, see Kate Fitz Gibbon's Editor's Note: The Illicit Trade-Fact or Fiction? In Who Owns the Past, p. 179.

Overall, antiquities are nowhere near as available, liquid or typically as valuable as drugs, diamonds, etc. so the idea that they are major funding sources for insurgencies is simply ridiculous.


Peter Tompa

Wayne G. Sayles said...


Is it true that the National Enquirer has offered to serialize your blog?

Fanning this Mohamed Atta flame, which you know very well is a red herring, is simply going to nail the coffin lid shut as far as any hope EVER of rational discourse.

While we clearly have differing views, I thought you might be above this sort of thing.



David Gill said...

Dear Peter and Wayne
Thank you both for responding separately to my posting on the report that was carried in the Art Newspaper, a publication I know that one of you takes seriously (see my earlier comments). I hope that one of you is not trying to slight AN by alluding to the National Enquirer.
Were public museums or private collectors buying antiquities derived from Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 2001?
And does Peter's helpful observation that "SAFE brought this Atta story up at the Italian MOU hearing in 2005" mean that the intelligence report is any less accurate?
Best wishes

John Muccigrosso said...

1. The NatEnq is enjoying a little well deserved acclaim these days, as John Edwrads 'fesses up to the paternity they attributed to him over a year ago. As one blogger has noted, if it were any other paper, it would be up for a Pulitzer for that one.

2. Peter, how are diamonds more liquid than antiquities? Or anything else in the universe for that matter?

Plus we find the usual straw man: no one said that antiquities were a major funding source for insurgencies. Rather they are likely a funding source for terrorist organizations.

3. Whatever it is you mean exactly by "dalliances with Saddam Hussein's regime", how it that relevant? Hussein is dead, and what obligation does David have to defend the wrong actions of anyone, no matter what group?

The issue of trade of illegal good of one kind getting caught up in the trade of illegal goods of another is an important and long-standing one, that reaches far beyond antiquities. Nevertheless it is important to realize what is going on here.

In the end though I'm confused about why you and Wayne protest so much at David raising this issue. Surely you condemn the illegal trade in antiquities as much as he does. What does this have to do with your own activities or those of your organization?

Wayne G. Sayles said...


How aptly put: "if it were any other paper." How can I disagree?


It should be fairly clear that my allusion was to a similarity of approach between this blog post and the National Enquirer, not between Art Newspaper and the Enquirer. I was, and am, disappointed by your fanning of this dead ember trying to make it a flame. For my comments made directly to Art Newspaper, which is a publication that as an Art Historian I have a great deal of respect for, see



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