A Yemeni researcher alleges that dozens of unlabeled artifacts originating from Yemen are slated for sale at a British auction house later this month, reflecting the Saudi-led trafficking of “blood antiquities” to international markets.
On social media, independent archaeologist Abdullah Mohsen posted that the London-based TimeLine Auctions will sell more than 6,000 ancient artifacts from around the world, including 101 from Egypt and more than 40 gold, silver, and copper alloy pieces allegedly looted from Yemeni museums and cultural heritage sites. Mohsen noted that dealers from France, Britain, Japan, and Israel contributed to the online auction, which will be held from November 29 to December 3.
The auction house did not respond to Hyperallergic’s multiple requests for comment.
Mohsen identified a copper-alloy camel with complex inscriptions on one side dating from the second or third century CE as well as another copper-alloy “camel rider” statue from the first or second century CE. Both pieces are listed as “South Arabian” on the TimeLine website and were acquired by French collectors in the 1980s. To identify other gold and silver pieces for sale, Mohsen compared the TimeLine listings with matching Yemeni antiquities held in the British Museum from the collection of the late Royal Navy officer Nicholas Wright, among others. He claims that TimeLine’s refusal to label the artifacts as Yemeni calls for “both sadness and sarcasm at the same time.”
“As usual, this auction company writes the name of the country to which the gold monuments belong such as Persia, Iraq, and Egypt — except Yemen,” Mohsen wrote. “[TimeLine] often classifies these under the general name ‘Western Asiatic Gold,’ and Yemen is one of the most prominent countries in this geographical range.”
Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art Curator Antonietta Catanzariti, who studies online auctions across the Middle East and recently curated the exhibition Ancient Yemen: Incense, Art, and Trade, refers to TimeLine as a “usual suspect” in the traffic of looted art. She told Hyperallergic that it took only a few clicks to identify the Yemeni pieces.
“In general with these online markets, anyone can open an account, become a seller, and just start posting artifacts online,” Catanzariti told Hyperallergic. “I regularly go on these platforms and have noticed fake items once valued at a dollar selling for so much more within a few years. It’s incentivizing antiquities trafficking.”
In September, Mohsen reportedly uncovered a similar TimeLine auction in which an unlabeled Yemeni lion necklace made of gold and jewels sold for $1,190 along with a set of gold beads for $745. TimeLine has also faced scrutiny for their sale of looted artifacts in other West Asian countries, including a Sumerian plaque sculpture that was subsequently returned to Iraq in 2020.
The British import of Yemeni artifacts dates back to the Crown’s 19th-century occupation of Yemen’s temporary capital, Aden. Since 2015, however, Saudi and Emirati forces have bolstered the traffic of antiquities into supporting Western countries while starving and bombing Yemen’s population. This has resulted in hundreds of cultural artifacts selling for millions of dollars — including statues, coins, manuscripts, and inscriptions — and has led Houthi forces to similarly traffic manuscripts and antiquities to Iran and Lebanon.
Yemen is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites and recently joined a 1970 convention against trafficking. In addition to Britain, Yemeni artifacts are also traded in the United States, though US officials have been working to curb sales. Governments from both countries continue to support Saudi and Emirati military operations in Yemen, however, which have resulted in the destruction of three museums, and Yemeni officials have also been accused of collusion in the antiquities trade.
While some pieces in the current auction have identifiable provenance, others do not, making it unclear when they were taken. Catanzariti added that the lack of proper identification, as well as the ongoing destruction of museums and archaeological sites, further contributes to the erasure of Yemeni cultural memory.
“When you remove an artifact from its original context, you are eradicating their meaning,” Catanzariti told Hyperallergic. “You end up knowing less. The people of Yemen really feel they are losing their identity. When you erase the past, you lose not just information but ways for people to talk about their history.”