Facebook trade in fake relics fuels Middle East looting

Social media giant is being used as platform for scammers in black market for artefacts

An investigation by The National, which exposes the sheer scale of the digital black market for relics, has shown by far most of the artefacts are fake. The National
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Placed neatly in two rows, 18 well-preserved and almost identical statuettes of a dark-haired woman stare out from the screen.

The cobalt-blue shabtis, figurines placed in ancient Egyptian tombs, are being offered for sale on Facebook.

The price for the relics, which appear to be a few inches in length, will be revealed if you contact the seller privately.

If they are genuine,buying or selling them is a crime.

If they are fake, it is a scam that could fuel a cottage industry for treasure hunters seeking out relics they hope could bring them a small fortune.

An investigation by The National, which exposes the sheer scale of the digital black market for relics, has shown the vast majority of the artefacts are fake.

Even so, experts say this could damage the Middle East’s cultural history. It also makes the job of conservation even harder and rewards criminal enterprises.

Facebook has also been accused of perpetuating the theft of artefacts by failing to remove posts offering them for sale.

Despite years of warnings, thousands of groups offering purportedly ancient items can be found by simply entering the words “antiquities for sale” in Arabic into the social media giant’s search bar.

The National showed pictures and videos of randomly selected items for sale to Dr Monica Hanna, a leading Egyptologist, to establish their provenance.

“They’re all totally fake,” is the judgment from the associate professor and dean of the College of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport.

Meanwhile Prof Maamoun Abdulkarim, the former director general for Antiquities and Museums in Syria, told The National that the market in fakes encourages people to move into an illegal business.

“The phenomenon of selling items on Facebook, despite them being fake, is dangerous," Prof Abdulkarim says.

"It sends a signal to people that they can make money by faking objects, especially in countries that suffer from problems of war, lack of security, and widespread poverty due to poor economic conditions."

We definitely need help from Facebook to combat the illegal trade in cultural heritage, which should be considered part of organised crime.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, former director general for Antiquities and Museums in Syria

Facebook scrutiny

The popularity of Facebook in the Middle East and features such as Facebook Groups, where like-minded users can gather, has made it the most common platform for the buying and selling artefacts.

The sale of antiquities in the Middle East through the platform began in the chaos after the Arab uprisings.

It was used by unscrupulous sellers of relics unearthed from conflict zones to buyers in the West.

Five years ago, Facebook faced criticism for failing to clamp down on the cultural vandalism.

Since then, the sale of genuine objects appears to be overshadowed by that of fakes and spawned a new eco-system of groups dedicated to buying, selling and discussing these objects.

“They scam people hoping to buy original objects at cheap prices so I think it’s all very shady and unethical,” says Dr Hanna.

The treasure hunters who are inspired by seeing the fake items then “destroy archaeological sites” as they “have no clue” what they are doing, which hampers the work of archaeologists, she says.

“Many people who do not know about antiquities think that they can get rich by doing this.

"People always have this dream that they will find something and will get rich. This is problematic because they disrupt archaeological sites and that causes damage."

Dr Hanna has little sympathy for people who fall for the scammers.

“I will not definitely feel bad for someone wanting to take part in an illegal activity for buying fake objects," she says.

“People always think they're too smart to get scammed. If you're an expert, it's pretty easy to tell what’s fake.

“If you sell fake antiquities claiming they are original, you can be prosecuted for scamming. But if you also sell originals, then that’s illegal. So it's illegal both ways.”

Get rich quick

One leading heritage crime expert to whom The National spoke estimated that “95 per cent of items for sale on social media” are fake.

At the upper end of the art market, dealers and galleries use specialists to identify what is real or not.

But at the lowest end of the market, there is a community of people “curious about treasures” who fall for the fakes, says the expert.

“What we see on social media, it’s fake, fake, fake. It’s very rare to find authentic objects.”

Describing how scammers become involved, the expert says many are unemployed or need money. Sellers may have been taken in by fake artefacts.

“People join these groups with no knowledge, so they are like observers at first and then they post comments and then they post photos to trick people.

“But because they are not experts it’s often that they have been tricked by someone else who’s sold them a fake object. In fact, they might have even borrowed money for this.”

Selling a dream

The extent to which Facebook has been used and continues to be used by the sellers of looted, genuine antiquities has been the subject of research that has drawn markedly different conclusions.

A study by the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project (ATHAR) concluded that Facebook played a substantial role in providing a means by which sellers of stolen items could find buyers.

Their 2019 study contained detailed analysis of Facebook groups and was accompanied by images of items for sale as evidence of users requesting items to be “looted to order”.

Facebook was accused of becoming a “digital black market where users buy and sell goods, including illicit antiquities, from some of the world’s most conflict-ridden nations”.

The platform was used as a means for terrorist groups such as ISIS to sell antiquities to fund their activities, the Athar study found.

But researchers from US policy think tank the Rand Corporation came to a different conclusion.

Its study, Tracking and Disrupting the Illicit Antiquities Trade with Open-Source Data, published in 2020, said that the Facebook groups were more about promoting a treasure-hunting lifestyle than selling genuine items, and much that is on offer is fake.

“Many of the largest groups operate as voyeuristic lifestyle sites, where users would share glamorous images of gold artefacts, treasures and valuable antiquities, with occasional accounts of treasure-hunting explorations of finds that make the riches seem attainable.

“The groups projected the idea that this was a world in which treasure hunting – looting – could yield wealth within easy reach.”

The Rand researchers said they found “Facebook is a prominent hub for discussions of antiquities, which may be driving interest in looting by highlighting the wealth it purportedly generates”.

“By promoting and normalising looting in Arabic-language groups, Facebook has the potential to drive looting even if there is not sufficient demand in the market to sell the looted goods.”

Lack of progress

Prof Abdulkarim, who is now at the University of Sharjah, tells The National that the percentage of fakes among looted antiquities seized in Syria and Lebanon rose to about 70 per cent during his time in office.

He says that as the civil war began to take hold of Syria, organised crime groups moved in as antiquities began to be looted.

But thanks to the actions of officials in hiding many of them from ISIS and other groups, there was a lack of supply so they turned to producing fakes.

The hundreds of objects seized by police that were being smuggled out of Syria by crime groups were sent to his office for examination.

These included mosaics, coins and manuscripts that were made in a “very professional” way, and Syrians began to sell these items on Facebook.

“We definitely need help from Facebook to combat the illegal trade in cultural heritage, which should be considered part of organised crime," Prof Abdulkarim says.

“I think it is important for Facebook to monitor these activities and help the relevant authorities such as Interpol, because if we leave these people free, they will practise these illegal activities on a larger scale.”

Dr Hanna says she believes the fakes market “could also be a front for selling real antiquities” and called for Facebook to act.

“The ones selling the real ones have their own channels that we cannot see that easily. I'd like to see Facebook stopping this because this encourages illegal activity."

A representative of Facebook's parent company, Meta, said: "We understand the personal and cultural value that historical artifacts hold for people, communities and regions across the globe, which is why our community standards strictly prohibit the sale, purchase, exchange and donation of antiquities.

"When we identify content like this, we work quickly to remove it.

"We’re constantly striving to improve our detection systems and encourage anyone who sees content that violates our policies to report it, so we can investigate and take action."

Dig for riches

Many Egyptian provinces are believed, by locals and archaeologists, to be built on ancient settlements.

Extracting artefacts from the ground by civilians is strictly illegal as that is only open to official antiquities authorities such as the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Illegal digs by civilians are rampant. This happens despite many being arrested by authorities for such activity.

Many of the groups The National looked at that are dedicated to antiquities, including private ones, have a large number of members, including one who has nearly one million.

It appear to be dedicated to selling items from Egypt but there are others from Syria, Iraq and Libya.

There are lively conversations as buyers and sellers go back and forth discussing the objects on offer.

Many groups share information about possible sites for excavation, with videos showing people apparently coming across ancient artefacts.

“Here in Egypt, people are digging next to archaeological sites, because in every village there is an archaeological site," Dr Hanna says.

She says people even “dig under their houses”.

While occasionally they find something, most often “they just waste their time and money”.

A large number of Facebook groups have posts from people offering to lease out equipment such as terrain radar and digging equipment to amateur archaeologists.

This is usually disguised as well-digging services to tty to evade Egypt’s ban on private excavation without, licences.

Amateur archaeologists

One Facebook user offering his services in Cairo was contacted by The National and he claimed he could help ordinary people dig for antiquities.

“I understand that you might be concerned, but it really isn’t as risky as some might make you believe," said the man, who claimed to have studied archaeology at Cairo University.

"I can provide you with a sonar scanner, which you can use without digging into your soil to determine whether or not it’s worth the trouble."

Sonar scanners are commonly used on agricultural land by farmers who want to dig wells on their property. They can easily determine the best channel to reach groundwater, the man said.

“If the police were to learn of your use of my scanner, we would simply tell them that you were looking to dig a well. It’s all very simple,” the man said.

Such scanners are rented by the hour and the process of scanning a feddan, or 0.42 hectares of land, takes between one and two hours, he said.

Renting his scanner costs 7,000 Egyptian pounds ($145) an hour for sandy soil. He said the rate to scan muddy or clay soil is higher, at 9,000 Egyptian pounds an hour.

Towards the end of the conversation, the man offered to buy the feddan of land that The National’s correspondent claimed to own, but only if the sonar scan found viable artefacts there.

“If the scan finds something, I can take the feddan off your hands for 1.5 million Egyptian pounds," the man said.

"I will know how to safely sell any pieces we find and you don’t have to risk getting involved with the authorities. But it is up to you, in the end."

Updated: April 28, 2024, 2:11 PM