‘The most illiquid property you can have is a Greek vase’: Vincent Geerling on the challenges facing the antiquities trade

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Vincent Geerling opened his gallery, Archea Ancient Art, in Amsterdam in 1995 and co-organised the Brussels Ancient Art Fair and The Basel Ancient Art Fair (both now defunct). Since retiring from dealing, Geerling is best known as the active and sometimes outspoken chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA), a position he has held since 2013.

As the IADAA turns 30 years old and the antiquities trade faces yet more scandals, Geerling reflects on how the industry has—and has not—changed, and defends its integrity.

The Art Newspaper :Take us back to 1993 and the formation of the IADAA in Ancient Art. How did it come to being?

Vincent Geerling: One of the IADAA’s founding fathers, James Ede, put it best when he described the 80s and 90s as, ironically, the best of times to be a dealer, but the huge rewards enjoyed by the more buccaneering part of the trade (including auctioneers) led to increased awareness that a good proportion of the material on the market, particularly at the top end, had come from illicit sources.”

It was a time when source countries were doing little in the way of protecting cultural property and, with no widely accepted code of ethics amongst dealers, we recognised that we had to find a way to deal safely and protect our customers. It was the first time that professionals from our field came together to set our own rules.

What were the key milestones for IADAA from that moment, to where we are today?

One of the more obvious moments is the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was a moment where everyone was predicting a surge in looted antiquities, but the reality was that instances of looted items reaching the trade were minimal.

Similarly, with the later Syrian war, there were predictions of an incoming flood of antiquities. We continuously asked members for evidence and the answer was always that there wasn’t anything being offered to them.

In terms of wider perceptions, a real shift happened in Germany, while preparing for a new and stricter law on cultural property (the so-called KGSG). In 2014, the new minister for culture, Monika Grütters, made a big thing about stolen heritage and links to ISIS, and the narrative that cultural property trafficking came third behind drugs and weapons—and was linked to terrorism—started building. Further unfounded claims followed, such as the claim made [on German TV in 2014] by the head of German art police, Frau Karfeld, that the trade [in illicit antiquities] was worth $6bn to $8bn. [The German newspaper] Der Spiegel then topped it by publishing a $7bn to $15bn figure for illicit trade [in August 2015, citing Unesco as a source].

But hasn’t that narrative heightened awareness of the issues the IADAA was formed to tackle? Or at least given authorities the justification they have needed to allocate resources to the problem?

It depends how you look at it, but publishing misleading data is wrong. We were writing to Unesco for two years [from October 2020] before they admitted that they didn’t have the evidence to back up the $10bn figure [the amount the trade in illicit antiquities was worth, according to Unesco], that they subsequently removed from their website [last year].

Similarly, whilst we work closely with and support Interpol, we challenged their claim that this form of criminality was the third-largest form of illicit trade for a year and a half before they took the claim off their site. The reality is that these statistics and claims are [attention] grabbing and influence rulemaking.

Vincent Geerling

Does that have an impact on dealers in their day-to-day business?

Yes, they have to explain the truth behind these figures to collectors all the time, [because] people think dealers are buying directly from Egypt and Greece. That’s just not true—there are millions of objects legally owned. We are the link between the previous owner and the future owner. I think of dealers as great protectors of cultural property—collecting is protecting.

It has also hugely impacted relationships between museums, dealers and academics. This has changed dramatically in the past decade, there’s a growing hostility. Museums used to regularly buy from dealers and get first choice on items but now they’re just terrified that someone is going to prove that something was looted or [concerned] that the provenance can’t be shown as older than 1970.

But surely that fear would not exist, regardless of the climate, if they had undertaken sufficient research to confirm it had not been looted? 

It’s the misinterpretation of the [International Council of Museums] ICOM 1970 rule; one has to make an effort to trace the provenance back to 1970. If that proves to be impossible, a curator is free to make his own judgement, as I understand it. And it has real consequences. I know of a couple with a pair of cuneiform tables which they knew had been with a relative for years, but they had no paper provenance pre-1990. They ended up throwing the tablets away as no one would buy them or accept them as a gift.

Talking of owners, the pressure on the trade to “know your customer” has risen significantly in the past 30 years. How are anti-money laundering regulations impacting the sector?

This area of law should be about financial institutions, they’re the gatekeepers, it has nothing to do with the art trade—there have been few (if any) laundering convictions involving dealers. If you look at financial intelligence unit reports from numerous countries you will see next to no evidence of links to art. I would suggest that checks for transactions over a million dollars would make more sense, as the bureaucracy costs can be crippling on smaller businesses.

But if the rest of society and sectors are being asked to work in this way, why should the art market be treated any differently?

We see it as useless. The most illiquid property you can have is a Greek vase.

With that in mind, looking ahead to the next 30 years, what are the big opportunities and challenges facing this trade and IADAA?

The new EU Importing Cultural Goods regulation 2019/880 is a challenge, we are sleepwalking into a disaster, it is extremely complicated; we expect that customs officials will be afraid to make a mistake, and subsequently stop any cultural object. There is opportunity though as the EU is at the moment pulling together an expert committee of art market experts to improve understanding for law makers of this important, but vulnerable, community.

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