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Is IKEA the World's Largest Charity?

If it's possible to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture without cursing at the top of your lungs, I've never seen it happen. There's always a missing piece of hardware, an unclear spot on the instructions, or an excruciating amount of hex wrenching to be done. The next time you ball your fists mid-assembly and curse all things Swedish, though, try to calm down. After all, IKEA's just another charity trying to get by.

Wait, what? You read that correctly; IKEA's technically a charity. But before you write down the umlaut-riddled name of your most recent dresser purchase as a charitable donation on your next tax return, it's worth exploring this ownership structure, which was brought to light by a 2006 article in The Economist.

IngvarKamprad.jpgIngvar Kamprad founded IKEA in Almhult, Sweden in 1943 when he was just 17 years old. Kamprad originally sold low-priced consumer goods from his home and by mail, but added a furniture line in 1948. As the company began opening its trademark sprawling stores, Kamprad grew fabulously wealthy, although he retained frugal tastes like driving an aging Volvo and always flying economy class. By some debated estimates, Kamprad is the world's richest man, and even Forbes' more conservative accounting pegs him as the seventh-richest person in the world with a net worth in the neighborhood of $31 billion.

Why can't anyone agree on how much Kamprad's worth? Well, for one he doesn't technically own IKEA anymore. In 1982, his ownership stake in the company was given to the newly formed Stichting Ingka Foundation, a Dutch charity. The foundation in turn administers the stores through Ingka Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary that operates as a for-profit company.

With an estimated endowment of over $36 billion in 2006, the Stichting Ingka Foundation is arguably the world's largest charity. The charity's stated goal is "to promote and support innovation in the field of architectural and interior design," surely a noble aim, but it's unclear how generous its support is. It's been confirmed that the foundation has given 1.7 million Euros a year to Sweden's Lund Institute of Technology for some time, but even that amount seems fairly tightfisted in light of its gigantic endowment. In other words, if you're an aspiring architect waiting for some financial support from IKEA, you're probably better off getting a job as a cashier at one of their stores than hoping for a grant.

So what's going on here? It would seem that the entire charitable foundation is a clever, if dubious, way for IKEA to avoid paying taxes. In 2004, the company pulled in a 1.4 billion euro profit, but since it's owned by a tax-exempt charity, it didn't pay a dime. Moreover, the Byzantine structure of for-profit holding companies nestled within non-profit charities effectively safeguards Kamprad from any sort of outside takeover bids for his housewares behemoth. The five-member board of the foundation, which is headed by Kamprad, is the de facto management for all of the IKEA stores.

IKEA-dresser.jpgAll of this sounds pretty clever, but if the stores are all owned by a charity, how can Kamprad and his family make any cash off of them? Maybe he's doing all this out of the goodness of his heart after all, right? The company's been just as clever in that regard, too. If the Stichting Ingka Foundation is really just a giant piggy bank, it's got a rather sizable hole in it. While the charitable foundation owns the IKEA stores, it doesn't own the IKEA trademark or concept. These items belong to Inter IKEA Systems, a private, for-profit Dutch company. Inter IKEA Systems collects hefty franchise fees from each IKEA store; according to The Economist, these fees amounted to 631 million euros in 2004. However, thanks to a convoluted multi-national system of ownership here, too, the company ended up paying a scant 19 million euros in taxes on this huge sum.

Who owns Inter IKEA Systems and its maze of parent companies? Nobody knows. Since they're private companies incorporated in various locations, their ownership is kept secret, and IKEA's certainly not about to spill the beans. It would seem reasonable to suggest that Kamprad probably owns it.

Should we really be surprised, though? These are the same people who can make a dresser that weighs just ten pounds, fits in a box the size of a deck of cards, and sells for four dollars. Just remember, when you scarf down a two-dollar plate of Swedish meatballs after buying furniture, you shouldn't feel ashamed for pigging out. Instead, hold your head up high and know that you've made your contribution to charity today. (Wait, you have some sauce on your chin. You'll probably want to wipe that off first.)

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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