Recently, in an exclusive event at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Secretary of State John Kerry stood – with perhaps unintended irony – before the facade of the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur to back an initiative to track losses of Syrian and Iraqi antiquities, including the destruction of monuments and looting of precious objects from archaeological sites.
Kerry blamed the “barbaric” practices of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who profit by sponsoring highly organised groups of looters who sell the objects, fresh from the ground, to middlemen.
But one might ask: Who buys them?
It’s politically advantageous to blame ISIL. But it is another barbarism, one that unfolds in the hushed and elegant showrooms of antiquities merchants and auction houses in the Middle East, Europe and the United States, that is the true engine of this commerce.
Antiquities trafficking is a booming business in Syria and Iraq, and not only ISIL is to blame.
Syrian government forces have been filmed piling delicately carved funerary statues from Roman-era Palmyra into the back of a pick-up truck, and at the ancient site of Apamea, a capital of the successors to Alexander the Great, the sudden appearance of a vast, lunar landscape of over 4,000 illegal excavation holes indicate it was also looted while under the army’s control.
Groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army have also admitted to looting sites to raise money for weapons.
It is now clear from satellite imagery and reports from Syria’s “Monuments Men” – a courageous network of informants risking their lives to report losses – hundreds of monuments and archaeological sites have been damaged, destroyed or dug up, in some cases using heavy machinery.
|Six Syrian heritage sites declared endangered|
In Iraq, which has experienced a continuous loss of antiquities since the 2003 US-led invasion, nearly 4,500 archaeological sites are now under ISIL control.
Looting of its archaeological riches is likely under way.
The satellite study shows Syria’s heritage – which represents over 5,000 years of humankind’s foundational achievements in the cradle of civilisation – is literally being ground into dust.
Calling groups like ISIL “barbarians” makes for a fine sense of wartime superiority, but asking who they’re selling to is less pleasant.
For many hand-wringing officials, that market is flourishing uncomfortably close to home. Germany has become the “El Dorado of the illegal cultural artifacts trade“, with Munich serving as Europe’s transit hub.
Meanwhile, US imports of Syrian antiquities have risen by 133 percent. Objects labelled “handicrafts” have been brought through customs with little scrutiny.
The sale of illegal antiquities is now being formally taxed by ISIL, and constitutes a reliable revenue stream after oil.
The recent naming of these looted goods “blood antiquities” or “conflict antiquities” and the adoption of the term “cultural cleansing” accurately reflect the bloody profit to be made.
What, then, shall we call the sellers and collectors?
Call them what they are: war profiteers.
If the term seems too strong, consider an 11th century wooden synagogue panel, inscribed in Hebrew, attributed to Damascus by a paper label on the back.
In 2011, its value was estimated at $5,000, with questions as to its date and little information about its provenance.
Two short years later, following the well-publicised, near-destruction of the synagogue of Jobar in Damascus in 2013, the piece was put up for auction at Sotheby’s, and had now acquired a lengthy exegetical commentary: “Once the most important Jewish pilgrimage site in Syria”, reads the catalogue’s explanatory text, “the synagogue has since been totally destroyed. This rare surviving artifact of the Jewish community at Jobar may be all that remains of this ancient and venerable community”.
The piece sold for $50,000.
Sales encourage looting
We should condemn auction houses’ practice of playing up the connection of objects to lost or endangered monuments to boost sales.
Even if legally acquired, such sales only serve to encourage looting and drive prices higher on the illicit market.
Collectors who imagine they are saving the artifacts from a worse fate delude themselves: Objects summarily ripped from the ground disappear into private collections and lose their ability to speak as material voices of history, robbed of the context that careful excavation by archaeologists and curation by museums can provide.
The collecting pays for the looting. And in this case, it also pays for the killing.
Until they can be excavated properly, the safest place for these objects is in the ground.
A UN ban on the sale of antiquities will no doubt raise awareness.
But the real solution lies in an honest assessment of the true driver of the international antiquities trade: collectors and auction houses, facilitated by lax regulations. In some countries, a simple egg is better regulated.
Recent German legislation places the onus on dealers to demonstrate goods are legally attained by demanding an official export license from the country of origin.
We should also create an international database for monitoring and tracking. US officials are paying attention.
With aggressive policing, such legislation could stem the tide of these “blood antiquities” at its source: not in the deserts of Syria and Iraq, but in the richly appointed homes of collectors and refined halls of auction houses in Europe, the Middle East and the US.
Stephennie Mulder is a Public Voices Fellow and an assistant professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s also an archaeologist who worked over a decade in Syria.