Archaeologist in Germany claims auction houses support terrorism

Firms deny charges, stress that laws are followed
By , Coin World
Published : 11/19/14
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A cultural property battle is raging in Germany, and one archaeologist is attacking auction firms and the antiquities trade in general, saying their efforts help finance terrorists.

Auction houses and art dealers are fighting back, though. They say that the issue is grossly inflated, and that such businesses work to ensure proper title and origin of all items they sell. 

The row began Oct. 20, when German broadcasting company Das Erste (ARD) aired a 43-minute video whose title translates to “The Squandered Legacy: Terrorist Financing by German Auction Houses.” A related story in English was also posted.

The same day, broadcaster DW (Deutsche Welle) aired a video interview with Michael Müller-Karpe of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (Roman-Germanic Central Museum) in Mainz. In the DW video, Müller-Karpe is quoted as saying: “The trade in antiquities promotes the destruction of archaeological sites and the information they contain, and it finances terrorism. One needs to be very clear: this market is soaked in blood.”

Qassam Atta, a spokesperson for the Iraqi military, is quoted in the DW video as saying, “One of the ways the Islamic State raises money is through the sale of Iraqi antiquities that are between 2[000] and 3,000 years old. For example, valuable ancient artifacts stolen from Mosul have been sold for large sums of money. These funds almost certainly go to financing the IS.”

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The online report at Das Erste claims that Germany is one of the main hubs for smugglers. The video traces the illicit traffic of antiquities, showing a pockmarked landscape where looting has reportedly occurred, and details how the items enter Germany with “clean” documents, mentioning looting 11 years ago at the National Museum in Baghdad. 

The video identifies Munich auction firm Gorny & Mosch, which deals in ancient artifacts as well as coins, as one of the outlets of such stolen goods, a charge the firm vehemently denies.

Industry reaction

In a statement from Gorny & Mosch released Nov. 13, the auction firm rejects the accusations made against it in the video.

“We are dismayed to see that a broadcast that is based on such poor and biased a research was to be watched on a broadcaster under public law and that its unsubstantiated assertions have made their way into the [television] news magazine ‘Tagesthemen’ as well,” according to a statement from the firm. “Deliberate false statements and manipulative collages of interviews, case studies that are taken out of context and are out of date, partial witnesses and allegations without evidence make for a mixture that we deem a justiciable defamation of the legal trade in ancient objects.”

Gorny & Mosch singled out the “wrong and fallacious” statements of Müller-Karpe, claiming that the video report was aimed at “cheap sensationalism.”

The firm said that the journalists accepted Müller-Karpe’s statements without skepticism, and that two items shown in the report as allegedly illegally looted — lots 88 and 224 from the firm’s June 25 auction of antiquities — were actually in fact from a private collection. 

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