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Looting in the Middle East encourages fakes and forgeries

Modern art targeted as the originals go missing

Political unrest, widespread looting in war zones and the destruction, or absence, of proper documentation mean that looting and faking have become serious concerns in the field of Middle Eastern art. There is increasing evidence, says Venetia Porter, the curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle Eastern art at the British Museum, that Islamic State is selling antiquities from archaeological sites under its control to raise funds: she does not hesitate to describe the situation as a “crisis”.

In addition, the ransacking of museums has brought stolen works of Modern art onto the market. Disruption in the region, as well as a lack of expertise and a lack of archives, has been blamed for a rise in faking, particularly of work by Iraqi and Egyptian artists.

So acute are these concerns that they were addressed by a panel held during the Abu Dhabi Art fair last month (4-8 November). “Fakes and Looted Art in the Middle Eastern Art Market” brought together Porter, the Dubai-based gallerist Charles Pocock, Saleh Barakat of Beirut’s Agial Gallery and Michael Jeha, the chief executive of Christie’s Dubai.

The problem of looting is illustrated by what has happened in Iraq. In 2003, Baghdad’s National Museum of Modern Art was ransacked, and in just three chaotic days, 6,000 works from its 7,000-strong collection were stolen, many soon to appear in street markets. Records were destroyed, making it extremely difficult to identify the stolen works. The problem was compounded by incomplete documentation. The art historian Nada Shabout, the director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative at the University of Texas, says: “The inventory that existed was not comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it up to international standards. It was a written record that had names of artists, numbers of works and other information, but no images. Nevertheless, it disappeared with the looting, only for one copy to surface several years later.” Even now that the institution has reopened, “all of the records and claims coming out of the museum from Baghdad are very suspicious”, she says.

As well as stolen works appearing on the market, forgery has been rife. Although the market for Middle Eastern art is small—the last auction season raised just $18m with fees—prices have risen, particularly for the Modern artists, although they rarely top $500,000. Estates and archives are not well documented, and there are few catalogues raisonnés. Couple this with the incomplete inventories in museums, and the disappearance of records in war zones, and “forgers have an open playing field”, Pocock says. The Middle Eastern art specialist Janet Rady says that “because the major auction houses are actively promoting the works of the masters, fakers are beginning to copy them more prolifically”.

Iraqi artists, notably Jewad Selim and Ismail Fattah, have been a particular target, but works purportedly by Louay Kayyali (from Syria), Hamed Nada, Abdel Hadi Al Gazzar and Tahia Halim (Egypt), Saliba Douaihy (Lebanon) and Jilali Gharbaoui (Morocco) have been offered to auction houses and dealers over the past eight years, often with no provenance. Barakat cites the case of a US auction house that offered eight works by Middle Eastern artists with no record of where they had come from. Despite being contacted by Barakat over his concerns, the auction house went ahead with the sale.

Most professionals admit that they have had problems in identifying works. Christie’s has had to withdraw some items from sales, including two pieces by Jewad Selim. Barakat sold a work by Kayyali that proved to be questionable, and subsequently took it back from the buyer. “I asked two specialists; one said it was authentic, the other said it wasn’t,” he says, underlining the dearth of recognised experts in this field.

Those involved locally are reluctant to air the problem too freely for fear of undermining confidence, but the situation is gradually improving, Jeha says. Christie’s is supporting—financially and otherwise—publications on artists such as Mahmoud Said, Chafic Abboud, Paul Guiragossian and Kayyali. “We hope that, within the next 25 years, there will be a catalogue raisonné or monograph for almost every leading Middle Eastern artist, along with experts or committees for most,” he says. Barakat and Pocock are actively working with artists and estates to improve archiving and expertise.

Although the problem of faking is lessening, the same cannot be said for looting, which constitutes a “major crisis”, Porter says. The British Museum, for example, has a memorandum of understanding with the police, who show the institution groups of works that are seized during drug-smuggling investigations. “It’s astounding what a mixed bag they can be. I have seen 400 to 500 objects brought together, ranging from Gandhara sculpture and Islamic pottery to masses of fakes of all sorts. And you have no idea where anything comes from,” Porter says.

With pieces that apparently come from Afghanistan or Iraq, she says, “the question obviously is, ‘Did these come from a museum?’ If you’re lucky, the pieces have a registration number, but often, [they] weren’t catalogued. The sites are being decimated, and there is a lot of evidence that antiquities are being stolen to fund terrorism.” The people who are selling these works are also going directly to regional museums. Manal Ataya, the director of Sharjah Art Museum, says that she is sometimes offered works by contacts giving just a mobile phone number.

Although all institutions and reputable dealers and auctioneers do due diligence, consult databases and check provenance, this is not always enough to identify wrongdoing. Porter cites the case of a tombstone from Yazd, Iran, which was not on the Art Loss Register (ALR) and about which she was consulted. “I just went to the standard book, and there it was on the first page. But the Iranian authorities hadn’t reported it stolen, which was why it wasn’t on the ALR,” she says.

Solutions are proving hard to find. Porter suggests that a better database is needed for stolen and looted works, but, she says, “it takes a long time to set them up; we have to work out what to do now. The big organisations are powerless in the face of what’s happening at the moment.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Middle East must tackle looting'