How the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Theft Prevention Unit stays one step ahead of the black market
In the Middle East today, Israel is the only country with a legal antiquities market. Because of this, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Theft Prevention Unit has become a global expert in understanding how the antiquity market works—and how it doesn’t.
Although the Antiquities Law requires all artifacts discovered since 1978 to be reported and yielded to the state, it did not put an end to the antiquities market altogether. Artifacts discovered prior to 1978 may still be bought, sold, or gifted as the owner so desires. When the law was passed, authorities took mass inventory of all the artifacts in private collections and dealers’ shops in order to determine which artifacts were found prior to the Antiquities Law and were therefore eligible to be sold on the market. Each item was numbered and described in a logbook. When an item was sold, dealers were required to inform the antiquities authority and remove it from their inventory. As you can imagine, this system left considerable room for dealers to engage in the black market by selling under the table illegally acquired artifacts or by laundering them into their inventories.
The responsibilities of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Theft Prevention Unit (“The Unit”) are numerous, but an important facet of their work is monitoring the antiquities market to ensure that dealers adhere to the Antiquities Law and only sell artifacts discovered prior to 1978. Recently, the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority (FIAA) interviewed Eitan Klein, The Unit’s Deputy Director, who oversees antiquities commerce in Israel. In the interview, Klein described how dealers launder artifacts into the market.
“Let’s say a tourist got inside [a dealer’s] shop,” Klein began. “He bought an oil lamp. The oil lamp in the inventory book was number 56. On the oil lamp … there was a stamp with the number 56. The dealer sold the oil lamp with no receipt.”
After selling the lamp, Klein explains, the dealer might put the #56 stamp on a similar oil lamp he bought from looters the night before.
“And that’s it! The looted oil lamp is now laundered in the inventory of the dealers. I’m sure it happens—I think more than thousands of times, maybe millions of times.”1
Recognizing this issue, The Unit converted their inventory to an online system in 2015. Dealers are now required to photograph each of their artifacts from multiple angles, making it easier for The Unit’s inspectors to tell if what a dealer is selling matches what he’s entered into the inventory. As managers of the computerized system, Klein and his team can see when items are sold, the name of the seller, the name of the buyer, etc.
Klein believes that this new system has prevented many artifacts from being laundered, but said that it is likely looters and antiquity dealers have “already found, or will find, the answer of how to [launder artifacts] differently. It’s like a cat-and-mouse game [to them].”
Not just anyone can become an antiquity dealer. The Unit only issues licenses to individuals who meet a number of criteria. For one, dealers must have a diploma relating to archaeology or history. Additionally, they must have at least three years of experience working in an antiquities shop and are required to pass a test produced by The Unit. Dealers must also pay an annual fee to maintain their license. As of today, there are about 50 antiquity dealers in Israel. Klein and his team periodically inspect the dealers’ shops, checking their inventory and inquiring about any items whose provenance is unlisted.
Klein estimates that some 20,000 artifacts are traded from Israel each year. You may find this number staggering, but it is perhaps less so when we consider that Israel has one of the highest ratios of antiquities sites worldwide. Over 30,000 sites are known in Israel, and there are certainly more to be discovered. In addition, looters from neighboring countries try to exploit Israel’s legal market by smuggling foreign artifacts into Israel and selling them underhand to licensed dealers.
“The antiquities trade,” Klein says, “is not a national problem—it’s an international problem.”
Klein explains that since “Israel is a source country, you can find antiquities in Israel. But it’s also a transit country, and there are museums in Israel buying [antiquities].”
As an antiquities source, transit location, and destination, Israel is at the heart of the Middle Eastern trade in antiquities.
It is because of this that the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit has become a global expert in how the antiquities market works. The Unit is made up of just 13 investigators, most of whom have an archaeology degree and were formerly combat officers in the Israeli Defense Force. To make up for their small numbers, The Unit relies on technology and remote surveillance equipment to monitor sites. One of The Unit’s employees works solely in web intelligence, tracking down looters by covering sites like eBay and Facebook for attempts to sell artifacts. The Unit also collaborates with a network of international agencies, including INTERPOL and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Over the past 15 years, the number of looting incidents in Israel has decreased. Klein told FIAA that he believes this is due in large part to The Unit’s diligence and preventative actions. The Unit is constantly working to seal up loopholes looters might take advantage of. For instance, while it is currently illegal to use a metal detector—or even to have one in your car—when at an archaeological site, the purchase of metal detectors is unregulated. The Unit is working to change this procedure so that metal detectors must be licensed, and purchasers must sign an agreement stating they understand and will abide by the Antiquities Law.
Still, despite the progress The Unit has achieved in subduing and preventing antiquity theft in Israel, Klein said that nearly every night, somewhere in Israel, an ancient site is targeted by looters.
“If you have a platform for selling antiquities,” Klein said, “someone will also look for antiquities. So the connection between the [antiquities market and looting] is very strong.”
It is because of this that The Unit is working to end Israel’s trade in antiquities altogether.
“Our main mission,” says Klein, “is the protection of antiquities. The antiquity sites in Israel [are] a time capsule of the history of … Israel, not just of Judaism, but also of Christianity and Islam. Everybody was here, and if we do not protect the cultural heritage of Israel, I think we will lose pieces from the history.”
If you would like to learn more about the Antiquity Theft Prevention Unit, or would like to support them in their work, please contact [email protected].
Abigail VanderHart is a Program Associate with the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority (FIAA). She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Archaeology from Wheaton College and is on staff at the Tel Shimron Excavations.
1. This laundering of antiquities was uncovered by archaeologist Morag Kersel during the course of her doctoral dissertation work. See M. M. Kersel, License to Sell: The Legal Trade of Antiquities in Israel (2006).
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