As looting slows, counterfeit antiquities are on the rise

UK Customs seize 190 items supposedly from ancient Mesopotamia

A recent seizure of fake ancient artefacts suggests that counterfeit antiquities are on the rise, says St John Simpson, a curator at the British Museum.

Last summer two lorries of figurines, seals and tablets purported to be from the first century BC were seized by British Customs officials.

They were sent to the British Museum, the first point of contact for any suspect antiquities entering the UK.

There, Mr Simpson, a curator in the Middle East department, examined them and found they were not from ancient Mesopotamia, but from a forger’s workshop.

Mr Simpson says the discrepancy was immediately recognisable.

“There are tablets that looked like they’d been inscribed by Toblerone bars, something unknown from antiquity,” he says.

The pottery was made from a different type of clay to what was used in Mesopotamia, and they were fired in a kiln, unlike originals.

But the biggest giveaway was the different types of writing, which Mr Simpson describes as “jumbles of signs picked at random, which could never be read by anyone".

The shipment came through Bahrain to a recipient in the UK, who remains unidentified. It is unclear where the goods were made.

Chinese fraudsters and those from other East Asian countries are regular suppliers of counterfeits, although Mr Simpson says it is possible these were made in the Middle East.

The hoard includes 190 items, comprising pillow-like tablets inscribed with fake cuneiform writing; rough-hewn, sand-coloured figurines; and cylinders including more angular markings.

They come from a person or workshop not known to the antiquities world.

“The fakers are always inventing new ways of trying to deceive,” Mr Simpson says.

“For us it was interesting to try and look at these objects, because they were a new type of fake we’d not seen before. It shows the evolution of crime to a market.”

Forgeries and fakes are common in art and antiquities, appearing as bait for unsuspecting tourists and occasionally in more high-profile sales and auctions.

But there are suggestions that counterfeit goods have a larger role in the market, as the flow of illegally trafficked authentic antiquities is being cut off.

“The supply of the originals peaks and troughs,” Mr Simpson says.

“At times of breakdown of law and order, that’s when looting of museums and sites in an organised manner takes off.

"And we’ve seen that in parts of Syria, Afghanistan, parts of southern Iraq and other regions.”

When law is restored, or where areas are too dangerous for looting or traffickers, the supply of antiquities falls.

“But the demand is constant, so people involved in the trade who make no distinction between genuine and unprovenanced antiquities decide to turn their hand to commissioning new ones, imitations,” Mr Simpson says.

“That’s what we’re seeing here. There’s no looting going on in Iraq today and in fact the scale to which objects came from Syria has been grossly exaggerated.

"So it’s not surprising to see a whole lot of fakes appearing on the market right now.”

The ease of buying from social media has also accelerated the counterfeit trade, in a mix of collectors who are new to the market, non-transparent sellers and poor documentation.

The British Museum will put the counterfeit objects on display as teaching tools, helping the public to see the difference between originals and fakes, and will use them in training programmes for curating and archaeology.

“People often ask the important question of, 'how do you know?'” Mr Simpson says. “Well, we know because we’re experts.

"These goods are really powerful ways of underlining the important social role that museums play.”