Fake cuneiform tables seized by customs officers. Image: The British Museum

Seized fakes reveal ‘emerging market’ in counterfeit antiquities

Jonathan Knott, 06.05.2020
Organised crime gangs are thought to be behind the trade in artefacts aimed at a “fresh gullible market”
The British Museum, London, has warned of growing market in fake antiquities after customs officials seized two trunks of counterfeits at Heathrow airport.

The metal containers, shipped from Bahrain to a UK private address, were filled with 190 individually-wrapped objects including animal-shaped pots, clay figurines, cylinder seals, and tablets inscribed with cuneiform. They were seized and opened by Border Control in July last year and handed to the British Museum’s Middle East department for analysis.

Experts’ suspicions were aroused when the cache of cuneiform tablets seemed too good to be true, apparently representing “a virtually complete range of basic types known from ancient Mesopotamia”.

“It was as if the whole genre of ancient Mesopotamian writing was represented in one shipment,” said the museum. And while some of the objects displayed known signs, others contained invented and meaningless inscriptions – “a complete mish-mash which made no sense when read”.

The type of clay and techniques used to make the objects provided further convincing evidence that the objects were fake and had no monetary value. Without interception, they would likely have been be sold to a private collector for thousands of pounds.

The fakes appeared to have been manufactured using a previously unknown technique, indicating that “this is a new production line aimed at a fresh gullible market.”

St John Simpson, a curator at the British Museum, said this incident appeared to be part of a wider trend. There is a growing market for fakes as governments move to block the black market in genuine antiquities.

“Countries like Iraq in particular have clamped down very heavily on the looting of archaeological sites and as a result, there is less material coming on to the illicit market,” said Simpson.

He said that while a museum would immediately identify the seized objects as fakes, “you can easily imagine the uninformed new collector who sees a couple of pictures on a phone and is sold a dud”.

“Auction house trade is well policed and is a transparent process, but where trade is in the hands of private dealers and private individuals, then it is much more opaque. I think these objects fall into the latter category,” said Simpson.

He added that museums have an important role to play in educating the public and organisations about the difference between real and fake antiquities, and to provide independent advice for law enforcement and private individuals.

The British Museum has previously helped with the repatriation of stolen and illicitly trafficked antiquities to countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Uzbekistan. Last year, more than 150 Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets looted from southern Iraq were returned to Baghdad.

The museum now plans to use the fakes for teaching and training and will put some on temporary display once the venue reopens. It keeps a small permanent collection of registered fakes and intends to add some of the newly acquired counterfeit objects to this.

Richard Nixon, a senior officer at Border Force Heathrow, said: “Organised crime gangs are usually the drivers behind the counterfeit trade and by making this seizure, our experienced officers have taken a substantial amount of money out of the hands of criminals.

“The links we have forged with experts at the British Museum were a vital part of this case and we will continue to work closely with them, as well as law enforcement partners, to stop counterfeit goods.”

Border Force passes evidence of potential criminal activity it finds to law enforcement agencies, who then decide on what next steps to take.

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