On an undocumented sofa, watching footage of ISIS militants taking jackhammers to hand and gleefully dismembering the artistic heritage of Mosul and Nimrud, I was brought to think of that great Nicholas Serota quote: ‘for 1,000 years, art has been one of our great civilising forces’. There is little that can epitomise ISIS’ departure from civil reason more than their taste for destroying priceless cultural artefacts. And no irony more vicious than theirs, that they do so in the name of the very same religion whose early caliphates awarded the world with the finest golden age in culture since Ancient Greece.

As we must think of ISIS’ ideology-driven terrorism as being the great threat to liberal modes of civilisation, so does the American and European West often pride itself on being near the pinnacle of the concept. Many among the Western middle class have long been sworn into guilt-absolving moral relativism, and the West’s incessant ambivalent relativism has both enabled and exacerbated a skewed and abstract cultural strata, where art no longer seeks to transcend the trappings of man as it did for so many centuries but rather strives vainly to reflect them.

Is it all that surprising, then, that in this age where Modern Art’s power to move to disgust fills as many column inches as ISIS does, we have found that art and, more pointedly, the art industry has taken on a unscrupulousness akin to that we so frequently rail against in the world of finance? In such an age as this, where the definition of art itself is dispersed among so many schools of practice to have been thinned to the consistency of air, transparency of vision and practice has become impossible. Obliqueness is now the name of the artist’s game. This applies not only to the printer, to the painter with the brush, the assistant with the skills, the conceptualist with the light bulb, but to the agent, the dealer and the collector.

The unsettling and seemingly random next step on that logical path is therefore to assume that a great many of the sales of modern art are being used to fund terrorism. An impossible connection? Alas, no. So seemingly disparate are the two concepts, both for the Romantics who bless the purity of art and those who see the Spartan culture of jihad and the decadence of Western art as ineffably separate, that one might never by oneself make the connection.

Dmitry Tamoikin, the enigmatic entrepreneur and activist, spent a period between 2011 and 2015 gazing up at the night sky from the proverbial mire and made just such a connection. With a great deal of research he found not just one connection, but a global network of them. Dmitry spent four years attempting to prove a connection between art and terrorist criminality. In the most dread way possible, he proved himself.

Of course, the criminal sees art in a manner squeezed of all meaning in a way that even IS, who see it as insurance of the past or as a symbol of decadent ideology, can’t match. To the criminal, art just looks like a hell of a lot of money that sheds no paper trail and therefore can move fairly easily through the porous, abstract borders of a nation. Tamoikin identifies the reconciliation of these properties in art with the possibilities of terrorism beginning in the 1980s, when the globalised ‘War on Terror’ itself began. Illegal cash flow was the lifeblood of international organised crime, and so the authorities began to trace end users. They slapped $10,000 limits on hands taking cash across borders; they also kept banks married to contractual justifications and wire transfer reportage. Of course, the maligning of the War on Terror began here, with civilians complaining of these techniques’ tendency to be both a nuisance and an infringement of rights.

On 9/11 global ideology shed, and public opinion duly turned, appalled. Behind that grave plot was cash funnelled along al-Qaeda conduits from global locations to America. The red flags were woven but not raised in time. According to texts in the UNT Libraries of the US Government’s Department, these transfers were deemed a series of seemingly non-connected and ‘unremarkable transactions’. Indeed, reviewers of the US’ failed preventative measures were correct in presuming that: ‘The existing mechanisms to prevent abuse of the financial system did not fail. They were never designed to detect or disrupt transactions of the type that financed 9/11’.

Too many stars were there in the sky for the constellation to be made apparent: in making such connections between innocuous transferrals of money, al-Qaeda had committed an act of terroristic genius, their invention was not a target that Western intelligence could not hit but rather one they could not see. Of course, in the aftermath of the most abominable terroristic act modern man has committed, the United States in particular went all out to try and eliminate all the darkness both amidst and around the skirting borders of her intelligence. Here the artistic connection comes into play. Just as the art world abides by a set of aesthetic and fiduciary physics that most mere mortals cannot understand, and is of a certain amorality that makes them rather not want to, so the art industry remains one of the last great unregulated markets of its kind, and what Tamoikin calls ‘a thriving haven for unremarkable transactions’.

The art market enjoys the kind of ‘extreme privacy’ that only fathomless wells of credit and bank accounts can raise. Every high-end collectible, not just paintings but any ‘movable cultural property’ such as ‘art, antiques and collectibles’ can and most certainly will be valued and exchanged under this pall of secrecy. The world beneath the table is more dazzling than the sunlit one above. The danger the unfettered art world poses in this manner is not simply restricted to its lack of regulation, but to the fact that it is accelerating wildly. Tamoikin sees fit to conceive of it not as a marketplace but as a ‘factory’, characterised by supply-and-demand ‘liquidity’ as opposed to boutique exchange. The result? ‘[E]extremely valuable, highly liquid, easy to make or buy objects that are unrecognised by the majority of people, including customs and border protection officers‘.

The purported deficit of artistic merit in art has seemingly been turned on its abstract limbs into something nefariously profitable. Few could honestly appeal that Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Dustheads contracts itself to any kind of artistic pantheon, and yet on the evening of the 15th of May, 2013, it became sale item 2785 in Christie’s, New York City. The successful bid? $48.4 million dollars. Claiming anonymity at the time, its buyer, the Malaysian financier Jho Low, was only named in the press some 21 months later, and only then with substantial under-the-table conferrals from sources close to the bidder. In the art market, Low’s anonymity is not uncommon; his eventual revelation is.

A piece such as the sold Basquiat is valuable in its apparent scrap. Tamoikin astutely points out that customs officers are not trained to identify valuable arts and antiques from the non-valuables; at all entry points they are therefore likely to see green lights. Worse still, there is no guarantee that even a reasonably trained border security official, except with a dynamic knowledge of the auctions, would have been able to tell that Dustheads was anything more than a kid’s particularly exuberant doodle.

‘The extent of the danger’, opines Tamoikin, is that these items can be ‘worth significantly more than ten kilograms of Heroin’, that other great financial enabler of terrorism. Money gained from a single artwork sale of this magnitude, and they are none too rare, ‘can support an entire al-Qaeda terrorist group for a year’. Worse still, considering the freedom of transit these painted/preserved/sculpted bomb shops have through borders, a given sale’s gestation period all but ensures that the financed terrorist group’s preparation period cannot be detected while in progress. Owing to the boundaries the art industry controls and for itself enjoys, if the paper trail can be identified at all, it will almost certainly be traced too late to prevent execution.

Methods of transit are similarly proofed against detection. Tamoikin cites the lack of suspicion of fraud put against any artwork arriving via shipping container (i.e., not transported by commercial flight), the almost farcical good faith the authorities have in not checking or tracking compact mail dispatches, and the inability to proof items of jewellery, as all viable routes for unremarkable exchange.

Similarly, illegal transfers of artworks are often facilitated by the bait-and-switch means of copy switch. Here a piece’s identical copy is exported as an original after arrival while the original stays put, its accounting import permit then ‘buried in a vast border service archive’. As auction houses and galleries have no link to customs, no background check is even in the question, and open sale is as breezy as breezy can be.

The stars are scrambled out of position. Once the shape of the hunter is put together from the dots, the incident facilitated by the sale has almost always been carried out first. Bold, mercurial, senselessly open and with a disregard for the audit, the art market provides terrorists with the precise financial systems that make them mere physical voices, phantoms with no need to get away; their system is unregulated, but by some standard or another, legitimate.

Some way away from the CIA, Forbes was one of the first bodies to begin chronicling the capital ecstasy and scree of public complaint surrounding the unregulated art market. Noting the many people from the world of finance entering the industry whose art was ‘the hottest new investment’, Forbes also made mention of the industry’s ‘murky modus operandi’, and quoted Greg Allen, chair of MoMA’s Junior Associates Board, noting how people were ‘shocked at the level of opacity and murkiness’ in its business dealings. So long as the galleries, auction houses, dealers and buyers are untethered to a public service providing security of exchange, they can afford to be loyal only to the money. This can bring nothing good.

Do the auction houses know the identity of their every seller? No. Do they know the identity of their every patron? No. More troubling than the anonymity of the auction-to-plot process itself where art funds terrorism, is what Tamoikin’s filed report all but confirms to us regarding the nature of terrorist organisations.

As he himself says, the financial backers of a group such as al-Qaeda: ‘are not illiterate, misguided or brainwashed combatants who do not fully comprehend their actions. On the contrary it is clear that these people are extremely wealthy, well-connected, and quite sophisticated’. Presuming they are, in fact, of Middle Eastern origin, the only conceivable semblance of an obstacle to their being able to fund illegal activity with art sales is transport.

As we have seen, with any proper knowledge of the appropriate routes, this is less than a problem. With a passport commensurate with their presumed financial status, it may be even less than that. Tamoikin connects the rise of Qatar and the UAE to become two of the biggest art-consuming nations in the world with a relative increase in likelihood that millions in art sales are being directed down illegal Middle Eastern pipelines, though with careful insurance and exhortation not to draw any racial gratuity from such a link.

The answer is reform. The new Wild West of the art world, strange, haunting and permissive, needs departmentalising, regulations and the introduction of new systems. It could provide a great wealth of security to the art industry under which the raving capital of the whole affair could flourish further albeit with a more honest attitude to the individual, including new created jobs, and with less scope to be taken advantage of by criminals.

It is not, lest we forget, only those intending to fund terrorist atrocities who will be using these channels. Loyalty only to money has morality beaten to a fine slick, and any moneyed criminal anywhere can begin to make a mockery of the system with just a little expertise. Dmitry Tamoikin’s final word is in praise of ‘proper government documentation and registration’, and proposes the extension of this system which documents cars, yachts, houses and planes, to pieces of collectible art.

Classification systems, tracking technologies, tech for transparent appraisal and universal auditing and a ready workforce are all in existence and ready to be unified. Tamoikin proposes a three-pillared bureau of his own development (the Tamoikin Art Fund) to regulate the art market. This is a Unified Legal Dictionary, a National (or Intl.) Movable Cultural Property Database and a Transparent and Auditable Appraisal Technology.

He ends it all with a challenge which he will prove to interested law enforcement as to just how easy it all is. Just how easy it is to move millions in art through every one of our taken-for-granted safeguards; just how easy it is for one of society’s great civilising forces to become a tool to some of the most dreaded and sinister.






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