From Damascus Mosques to New-York Salons

Reflections on the Trade of Islamic Architectural Ceramic

4ᵉ Congrès des études sur le Moyen-Orient et les Mondes musulmans, 28 June- 2 July 2021


In 2018, Christie’s sold parts of the collection of the New-York artist Lockwood De Forest, composed of so-called Damascus architectural tiles. Lockwood De Forest, in Damascus in the 1880s, was willing to pay five dollars for individual tiles and more for complete sets, a fortune for the time. In 1972, John Carswell attached the 1,200 tiles in the collection to monuments still in elevation, mostly mosques, without questioning the way they were acquired.
Christie’s auction ended a lean period for the Islamic architectural ceramics market, caused by the wars in Syria and the looting of archaeological sites by ISIL. In this particularly gloomy context, the Lockwood De Forest collection and its auction raise questions about the enthusiasm of collectors for Islamic architectural decoration and its impact on the conversation of cultural heritage.
This intervention proposes to analyse the ethical and legal questions surrounding the Islamic architectural ceramics market through the example of Mamluk and Ottoman productions.


This speech was initially delivered in French. It was translated to publish here, but was not reworked further. The reader will excuse potential clumsiness in the language. As well, some images are directly issued from the PowerPoint presentation and therefore appear in French.

The few thoughts on the market of Islamic architectural ceramic, developed below, take as their starting point the sale of a part of Lockwood de Forest’s collection at Christie’s in 2018, consisting of 38 so-called Damascus ceramic tiles. This sale was held during a lean time for the Syrian architectural ceramics market, triggered by the wars in Syria and the implementation of an embargo on the export of Syrian cultural goods, and the increased caution that came with. The sale catalogue was silent regarding the origin of these tiles, even though it quoted John Carswell’s article from 1972,1 on the origin of the six tiles in the Metropolitan Museum and their stylistic proximity with the mausoleum of Ghars al-Din al-Khalil al-Tawrizi in Damascus. In the article, Carswell also drew parallels with Lockwood De Forest’s collection. The reference to John Carswell brought scientific credibility to the sale, but failed to go any further. The connection between certain tiles in the sale and the Jami al-Tawrizi of Damascus was however obvious. This silence reflected a general decontextualization of the items, to avoid raising questions of a legal nature.

2 tiles from Lockwood De Forest collection sold at Christie's and their close connection to the Jami' al-Tawrizi in Damascus

This presentation therefore seeks to replace the sale of Lockwood de Forest’s collection in its geopolitical and legal context, while questioning the current practices of the Islamic art market, particularly in London.

Lockwood de Forest

Lockwood de Forest2 was born in New York in 1850 into a family of wealthy lawyers. He grew up in New York’s upper class and was exposed to Islamic arts at a young age, notably by his cousin, the artist Frederick E. Church, who commissioned a mansion in the early 1870s at Olana, among other decorated with Qajar tiles. Lockwood aimed quite early for an artist career and exhibited for the first time at the National Academy of Design in 1872. He was received as an academician in 1891.

Lokwood De Forest
Lockwood de Forest, c. 1870 ©Smithsonian AAA

In 1875, Lockwood and his family embarked on a trip to Egypt and the Middle East. In Cairo, he was particularly interested in architecture, details of which he reproduced in his notebooks.

He arrived in Damascus in April 1876 where he discovered Syrian architectural ceramics. He started buying Syrian tiles as soon as he arrived and continued for 30 years. From his correspondence, we know that he was prepared to pay $5 per tile, more for complete sets. For comparison, the average wage for an unskilled worker in the United States in the same year was $1.44 per day. According to John Carswell, more than 1,200 tiles were bought in Damascus, most of them originating from 15th and 16th centuries monuments, others having been imported from the Dome of the Rock and possibly other centres of the Ottoman Empire. Roberta A. Meyer increased this estimate in her monograph, writing that nearly 2,000 tiles were purchased by Lockwood De Forest and brought back to the US, most of them to decorate his New York home, but also to include in the proposed interior designs for his customers.

De Forest left for India in 1880, where he developed a passion for woodworking. During the following years, he founded a woodshop in Ahmedabad, where were produced wooden furniture then imported and sold in the United States. In 1882, he returned to NY where he settled as an interior designer and worked until 1915. He died in Santa Monica in 1932.

In his 1972 article, Carswell dwelled little on the Lockwood De Forest collection. He comments:

A second important collection of tiles was made in Damascus in the 1880s by the American designer Colonel Lockwood de Forest and returned to the United States; they are now privately owned in Santa Monica.

Carswell did not develop further on the provenance of these tiles but dealt with a possible origin, the Ghars al-din al-Khalil al-Tawrizi mausoleum, erected in the first half of the 15th century in Damascus.

This first point is particularly important to raise, as it has a direct impact on the law and the practices of the art market: the differentiation between origin, namely the monument, city, geographical era and chronology to which the object is attached, and the provenance, namely the collection(s) preceding the sale of the object.

The Market of Architectural Ceramic and the Question of Provenance

The 38 tiles in 15 lots were sold for a total of £161.500, a record for 15th and 16th century Syrian tiles sold individually or in small lots (full panels can fetch higher prices). This sale was a major event because Syrian architectural ceramics had become scarce on the market since the decree of an embargo on Syrian cultural property in 2014.

The wars in Syria and the seizure of power by the terrorist organization ISIL have been devastating for cultural heritage, pushing the United Nations to put in place legal sanctions on the export of cultural goods in 2014. A very late reaction, although the act is retroactive to 2011, which responded to the creation by ISIL of an administrative body entirely dedicated to the excavation of archaeological sites and the sale of cultural goods3, considered a natural resource, the same way as oil. The embargo also came after an official American report which summarized fluctuations in Syrian imports to the United States. Between 2012 and 2013, antiquity imports from Syria, but also from Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon increased exponentially, against a general and sudden drop in total imports.

US imports of Syrian cultural goods in 2013

The embargo on Syria, similar in design and content to the embargo imposed on Iraq in 2003, was aimed at limiting Syrian exports, including cultural goods.

 Article 11c  1. It shall be prohibited to import, export, transfer, or provide brokering services related to the import, export or transfer of, Syrian cultural property goods and other goods of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance, including those listed in Annex XI, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the goods have been removed from Syria without the consent of their legitimate owner or have been removed in breach of Syrian law or international law, in particular if the goods form an integral part of either the public collections listed in the inventories of the conservation collections of Syrian museums, archives or libraries, or the inventories of Syrian religious institutions.  2. The prohibition in paragraph 1 shall not apply if it is demonstrated that:  (a) the goods were exported from Syria prior to 15 March 2011; or  (b) the goods are being safely returned to their legitimate owners in Syria.

Export Control (Syria Sanctions) (Amendment) Order 2014 SI No. 2014 1896, 16th July 2014

The term “reasonable grounds to suspect” is common in law, referring to the fine line between belief and knowledge. As a consequence, it has a direct impact on research related to the provenance of an object. The question of provenance has therefore become pivotal to the art market, as scandals linked to the sale of stolen objects constitute a bad press highlighting the sometimes opaque acquisition practices of auction houses, and can engage their legal responsibility. The hobby lobby company’s lawsuit over the handling of looted Iraqi cuneiform tablets, which has taken place in recent years in the United States is a case in point4, and the company turned against Christie’s last year, accusing the auction house of knowing that the provenance of one of the tablets bearing Gilgamesh epic was false5.

The question of provenance is particularly important as false origins have multiplied on the market since the beginning of the 2010s, linked to complex networks of trafficking in cultural goods leaving from Syria and passing through Turkey or Lebanon where the traffickers create false sources in the form of proof of purchase6. If this phenomenon is well known for Mediterranean Antiquities7, it is quite different for the arts of Islam, of which destructions in Syria from 2011 were much less publicized than the destruction of the temple of Bel or the looting of Doura-Europos. The destruction of more than 50 Syrian and Iraqi Islamic mausoleums and tombs was recorded between 2011 and 20168, causing considerable loss of life as in the attack on the mausoleum of Muhammad b. Ali in 2016, but also the disappearance of major archaeological data, many sites having never been published before their destruction. The systematic looting, controlled by the ISIL administrative body, was documented by the terrorist organization, but also by scholars who went to Syria to investigate the trafficking networks. This is particularly the case of Neil Brodie and Isber Sabrine who published the results of their field survey in 20189. Umayyad and Abbasid coins are very popular with looters, as they are easy to smuggle into Turkey or Lebanon, against mosaics or large statuaries. There, an Umayyad or Abbasid coin minted in Damascus can be sold for $150, a fortune for local populations affected by the war.

We see here a certain symmetry between Lockwood de Forest, willing to pay $5 for a Damascus tile, later sold for £10,000, and the current market where gold dinars without provenance are frequently offered for considerable amounts.

Bonham's 11/06/2020, lot 44 Gold Dinar without provenance
Gold dinar dated 77/ 696-7. Offered at Bonhams without provenance, £100-120.000, 11/06/2020, lot 44

Coming back to architectural ceramics, English public auctions of Syrian architectural ceramics declined abruptly after 2014, obviously not because all ceramic tiles were illegally imported from Syria before then, but because auction houses had to put emphasis on the provenance of the tiles presented, which can be a difficult exercise. Lockwood de Forest’s dispersed collection somewhat illustrates this problem. We know that he bought numerous tiles, a large part of which he kept in order to decorate the interior of his New York home, but the terms of purchase and the identity of the sellers have never been documented, and moreover, the details of the tiles he sold as part of his activities as an interior designer are not known, nor the identity of the buyers. Unless the original proofs of purchase were preserved, it is difficult for the heirs of these anonymous collectors to justify how these tiles arrived in their homes, and therefore to put them up for public sale.

Protection of Cultural Objects and Art Market Practices

Which brings me to my third and final point. Research into objects’s provenance is part of auction house due diligence. For objects offered in auction several times, previous sales are often considered as provenance.

Christie's 26.04.2012 lot 239 mentioning a previous auction as a provenance
The 2006 catalogue provenance states “Various Properties”. The panel was sold in 2006 for £48.000 against £12.500 in 2012.

The sources are kept confidential by the auction houses which aim to protect the identity of the sellers, in particular under the GDPR law, thus creating an opaque but legal environment.

Several laws are aimed at protecting cultural property, offering legal remedies to states and individuals who have suffered from theft or spoliation. Restitution is most often initiated by museum institutions following lawsuits made public, and very rarely by private collectors who have acquired their property for sale, the latter being anonymous most of the time. On restitutions by museums, I refer you for example to the current case of Benin bronzes, for which Nigeria is in the process of obtaining the restitution10, or the restitution of works of art stolen by the Nazis from Jewish families, for instance the painting Roses under a tree of Gustav Klimt which will soon be returned by the Musée d’Orsay to the heirs of the original owner11

The Hague Convention, 1954, augmented by a second protocol in 1999 then ratified by the United Kingdom and implemented in 2017 under The Cultural Property Act: this convention, created after the mass destructions of the World War II, provides a legal framework for the protection of cultural property in times of armed conflict.

The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect cultural property situated within their own territory as well as within the territory of other High Contracting Parties by refraining from any use of the property and its immediate surroundings or of the appliances in use for its protection for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict; and by refraining from any act of hostility, directed against such property.

La Hague Convention 1954, Article 4 – Respect of Cultural Property

The Cultural Property Act 2017 comes after the ratification of the second protocol by the United Kingdom and provides legal sanctions for the export, sale and handling of cultural property illegally exported from occupied territories, sanctions which are lacking in the 1954 convention. The law therefore targets looters, but also traffickers and sellers, including auction houses that would have knowledge of the tainted origin of the object, or reasons to believe the provenance to be illegal.

(1) It is an offence for a person to deal in unlawfully exported cultural property, knowing or having reason to suspect that it has been unlawfully exported. […]
(3)A person deals in unlawfully exported cultural property if (and only if) the person—
(a)acquires or disposes of it in the United Kingdom or imports it into, or exports it from, the United Kingdom,
(b)agrees with another to do an act mentioned in paragraph (a), or
(c)makes arrangements under which another does such an act or under which another agrees with a third person to do such an act.

Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act 2017, article 17

The UNESCO Convention, 1970 extends the 1954 Hague Convention by focusing on the illegal export of cultural objects from their origin countries and provides a legal terminus post quem for the exchange of cultural goods between member states. For this reason, it is common to see in sales catalogues opaque provenances mentioning the 1970s, which do not provide information on how the piece was obtained and imported but remain legal.

Christie's 25.06.2020 lot 20, example of provenance mentioning the 1970's

Article 2

The States Parties to this Convention recognize that the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property and that international co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country’s cultural property against all the dangers resulting there from.

To this end, the States Parties undertake to oppose such practices with the means at their disposal, and particularly by removing their causes, putting a stop to current practices, and by helping to make the necessary reparations.

Article 3

The import, export or transfer of ownership of cultural property effected contrary to the provisions adopted under this Convention by the States Parties thereto, shall be illicit.

UNESCO Convention 1970

Finally, the UNIDROIT convention, signed in Rome in 1995, has a large impact on the practices of the current architectural ceramics market. It aims to provide a framework for the return of illegally exported or stolen cultural objects by providing a legal framework for states and individuals to claim the object restitution. The definition and list of what is considered a cultural object is included within the convention. The convention also defines the criteria to be met to claim restitution: the request must be made within 3 years of the location of the object, and within 50 years of the object’s export or theft. This 50-years statute of limitation does not apply if the object was part of a public collection or an integral part of a monument or archaeological site, which is particularly significant in the context of architectural ceramics. Partly for this reason, research on origins of ceramic tiles and other architectural fragments sold in public auctions are usually superficial, tiles being rarely attached to monuments in elevation, except for pieces whose provenance is established and documented as legal.

This Convention applies to claims of an international character for:

(a) the restitution of stolen cultural objects;

(b) the return of cultural objects removed from the territory of a Contracting State contrary to its law regulating the export of cultural objects for the purpose of protecting its cultural heritage (hereinafter “illegally exported cultural objects”).

UNIDROIT Convention 1995, article 1

Thus, would Syria be entitled to demand the restitution of the ceramics bought by Lockwood de Forest in the years 1875-80 and sold at Christie’s in 2018? At this time, most likely not, but if it was conclusively shown that the tiles had been stolen to be sold to De Forest from buildings still in elevation today, Syria could possibly ask for their restitution.


In conclusion, the international conventions mentioned above illustrate the fluid definition of cultural objects and the legislative difficulties to protect cultural properties. Syrian ceramic tiles reflect this fluidity, going from elements forming part of a coherent whole in a mosque or mausoleum, to an isolated piece with a purely decorative function for Lockwood De Forest, to a natural resource for ISIL, to a piece of art recontextualized by the economy of the global art market. A perfect and timeless definition of cultural good is impossible, because the value of a cultural good is a social construct bound to fluctuate, and with it the monetary values artificially attributed by the art market. Establishing a provenance was one of the prerequisites for determining the authenticity of a piece and deciding its value. The wars in Iraq and Syria and the embargoes on cultural objects export that followed, as well as the scandals of handling and sale of stolen art, have pushed auction houses to drastically change their approach to provenance, using it as a legal ground to sell more than a legitimation tool.

In this context, we can be worried that the United Kingdom has recently started a process of repealing Regulation 2019/880 of the European Parliament regarding the introduction and exportation of cultural objects, signed in 2019 and aimed at harmonizing the rules of import and export of cultural goods for member states12. This law complemented the 1970 Unesco Convention by strengthening a control system for the movement of cultural property through the creation of a database of import and export licences and importer declarations, which include provenance information. This database should be in place by 2025, but by withdrawing from the European Union and repealing this regulation, the United Kingdom further opacifies the functioning of the art market on its territory and risks making it easier for art traffickers to import stolen art. Only strong market-end legislation will impact the preservation of cultural property by reducing the demand for looted artefacts and depressing supply. As long as the demand for new and spectacular art will continue to created excitement in auction rooms, traffickers will continue to thrive.

recent cases of stolen art sale
  1. Carswell, John, “6 Tiles”, Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972, p. 99–124.
  2. The few biographical remarks on Lockwood De Forest are for the most part taken from the work of Roberta A. Mayer and in particular the 2008 monograph Lockwood de Forest, Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India, University of Delaware Press, 2008.
  3. Al-Azr, Amr, “ISIS
    and the Illegal Trade of Artifacts”, IWA, 1 (fall 2015). of-artifacts/
  4. Brodie, Neil, “Restorative justice? Questions arising out of the Hobby Lobby return of cuneiform tablets to Iraq”, RevistaMemóriaem Rede, 12 (2020), pp. 87-109.
  5. Hobby Lobby sues Christie’s for selling it an antiquity authorities say was looted | The Art Newspaper, 19/05/2020
  6. Faucon, Benoit; Kantchev, Georgi, MacDonald, Alistair, “The men Who Trade ISIS Loot”, The Wall Street Journal, 6/08/2017,
  7. See for instance Campbell, Peter, “The Illicit Antiquities Trade as a Transnational Criminal Network: Characterizing and Anticipating Trafficking of Cultural Heritage.” International Journal of Cultural Property 20 (2013), pp. 113– 53; Gerstenblith, Patty, “Controlling the International Market in Antiquities: Reducing the Harm, Preserving the Past.” Chicago Journal of International Law 8 (2007), pp. 169–9
  8. A. Curry, “Ancient Sites Damaged and Destroyed by ISIS”, National Geographic, Nov. 2017,
  9. Brodie, Neil, and Sabrine, Isber, “The Illegal Excavation and Trade of Syrian Cultural Objects: A View from the Ground.” Journal of Field Archaeology 43:1 (2018), pp 74–94
  10. Lister-Fell, Frankie, “More museums take steps to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria”, Museums Association, 13/04/2021
  11. Samson, Anna, “France to return Klimt painting, which hangs in the Musée d’Orsay, to heirs of Viennese Jewish owner”, The Art Newspaper, 15/03/2021,
  12. Herman, Alexandre, “UK to repeal import prohibition derived from EU law”, Institute of Art and Law blog, 25/05/2021,