When UK Border Force discovered two trunks of suspicious-looking antiquities, Museum curators were on hand to work out whether they were fakes or the real thing.
Here Assistant Keeper in the Middle East Department St John Simpson explores the illicit trade of fake antiquities...
Fake antiquities made for unsuspecting collectors
On 1 July 2019 two metal trunks were opened at Heathrow Airport after catching the attention of an eagle-eyed Border Force officer. They were consigned from Bahrain to a private address in the UK. The trunks were found to be filled with what initially looked like objects from ancient Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, and dating between about 2000 BC and 500 BC. The trunks had as many as 190 clay tablets covered in cuneiform script (a type of writing used in Mesopotamia), figurines, cylinder seals (made in order to make impressions in wet clay), and some rather unusual and imaginative animal-shaped pots. All were individually packaged in bubble-wrap and parcel tape. Photographs of a selection were immediately taken and sent to the British Museum, rapidly followed by the objects themselves for closer expert identification. This is an important but little-known part of our job at the Museum and it is crucial to be swift in our response so that cases can be investigated carefully by law enforcement.
Every case is different and it is always exciting to open up trunks like these and call in the most appropriate curators to assess the items in detail. In this instance the cuneiform tablets represent a virtually complete range of basic types known from ancient Mesopotamia: school texts for trainee scribes, administrative texts, royal inscriptions, mathematical texts and others resembling official documents from temples and public buildings. There was also an inscribed amulet resembling a unique example excavated at the Late Assyrian capital of Nimrud.
It is as if the whole genre of ancient Mesopotamian writing is on display, an entire collection ready for a single informed buyer. But there is one glaring problem. Not one is ancient. Some of the inscriptions contain real signs and the royal inscription begins with a known formula and imitates an inscription carved from stone; the amulet is undoubtedly copied from another found at Nimrud. The rest of the inscriptions are a jumble of signs, some invented, others upside-down, a complete mish-mash which made no sense when read.
The clay is all a similar type, which would be impossible for such a wide chronological and functional range of genuine inscriptions from different sites. If real, these tablets would simply have been sun-dried clay but these have all been fired deliberately and consistently, and to a relatively high temperature, proving that they are the product of a modern workshop with a kiln. The clay itself is also the wrong kind for the types of tablet. Additionally, the sizes and thicknesses of the tablets don't match those of the originals – a common error of forgers who often work from photographs in books, and don't get a sense of the true dimensions of these objects.
The cylinder seals found in the trunks were also made of fired clay rather than characteristic stone, and some curious figurines looked like 'teasers' for a prospective buyer interested in widening their collection yet further. Not long after the first trunks were opened, two more arrived at Heathrow, this time with many more of the figurines and some animal-shaped pottery vessels. It immediately confirmed our suspicions and made us realise that there are surely more trunks of fakes somewhere out there…
This is evidence for a side of the trade in antiquities which is rarely discussed – there are more fakes in circulation than genuine articles. It is easier and cheaper to make copies than it is to hire dozens of workers to look for originals. Fakes can also be conveniently complete, whereas almost everything from antiquity has been broken, either deliberately in episodes of destruction, or accidentally in the case of everyday items. There is also the simple economic truth of the laws of supply and demand.
It is highly risky to loot archaeological sites in countries such as Iraq and Iran – the death penalty has been awarded for such offences as they are considered such serious breaches of national antiquity laws. The largescale looting of sites in southern Iraq which took place in the immediate chaotic aftermath of the overthrow of government, law and order after the American-led invasion in 2003, ended long ago, and today there is a highly efficient and armed archaeological police service who regularly patrol sites and guard museums and archaeological projects 24/7.
Someone has therefore chosen to find another solution to fuelling the market, and that is through making crude copies and passing them off as originals. The whereabouts of the workshop is uncertain but it is within the Middle East. Faking tablets has been known for over 200 years and they began to appear even before cuneiform had been deciphered. However, this is the first time that we have seen fakes of this particular type – this is a new production line aimed at private individuals with little or no knowledge of the originals. They didn't get far as they caught the attention of Border Force and were stopped from reaching their intended destination. The fakes will instead now be used for teaching and training purposes and a selection will go on display for a short period at the British Museum when it reopens. This display will be in the special showcase in Room 53 where we have previously shown Gandharan sculptures and the temple carving from Surkh Kotal, stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan – all of which are going back to Kabul when the lockdown eases.
The British Museum is the main advisory body in the UK in the case of enquiries over stolen or possible illicit trafficking of antiquities. If objects are considered suspicious by the UK Border Force, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency, Metropolitan Police, auction house or private individuals, we are notified and our expert advice sought. If the items prove to be stolen or trafficked, we notify the national museum in the country where we believe them to have originated, request permission to proceed and inform their embassy in London. We produce a report for the investigating agency, catalogue and photograph the objects and, if resources allow, we scientifically analyse them in order to answer any specific questions. Our part is then done until we are notified that the objects may be returned to the country in question. At that point we produce a press release, work with the relevant museum and embassy to ensure a smooth handover, and keep relevant parties updated. This is a protocol we developed many years ago with the National Museum of Afghanistan, and we are delighted to share some of these successes here on the British Museum blog.
To discover more, you can read a blog on returning objects from the ancient site of Tello in Iraq.
You can also read an interview with Dr St John Simpson about collaboration with foreign museums, restoring stolen art, and the museum's role as expert witness to looting.