Sean McLachlan ('Syrian Civil War Fueled By Illegal Antiquities Trade' Sep 14th 2012) summarises the recent Time article on the illicit antiquities trade from Syria that may be helping finance the prolonging of the war.
Smugglers and antiquities dealers in Lebanon told the magazine that both the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian government are trading looted antiquities for weapons. One smuggler even claimed that the Free Syrian Army is organizing a special team to more systematically locate archaeological artifacts to sell. The Free Syrian Army denies the claim but admits that some of its members have engaged in looting. While the destruction of Syria's past may seem of little importance when compared with the 20,000 or more killed and the countless injured and displaced, the fact that the trade in looted antiquities may be fueling the conflict is troubling. It will also make it harder for Syria to recover once the war is over. It used to earn 12% of its national income from tourists attracted by the country's many ancient and medieval sites.There may be little left to see, with all six of its UNESCO World Heritage Sites damaged, and countless museums, archaeological sites and historic buildings looted and damaged.So, these antiquities are coming out of the ground and looted storerooms, passing through somebody's hands and then being offered to those who give them money for guns and explosives etc in order to obtain the artefacts. They will then sell them on to dealers and collectors at a profit. So what are these illicit antiquities going to look like?
Well, quite obviously by the time they surface ('from underground') on the market they are not going to be offered under the title of "Antiquities bought from Hezbollah/ Near Eastern weapons dealers". Even given the western collectors' obvious "could-not-care-less-about-anything-but-myself" attitudes, I think it pretty obvious they'd not sell very well. Indeed, one hopes the authorities would take an active interest in any seller offering goods labelled in that manner.
Given therefore that the objects are not being sold labelled as "illicit antiquities", one can only assume that when they surface on the open market they are being sold as unlabelled antiquities. As we all know, there are thousands of such unlabelled antiquities with no stated collecting history worth the name. Some of them come from genuine old (pre-1970) collections and have become separated from their documentation through utter carelessness of the people handling them. Many however are looted, smuggled and other freshly "surfaced" ('from underground') artefacts of the most dubious provenance and bought no-questions-asked at second or third hand from characters with shady business interests. These two groups of artefacts are sold indiscriminately (some might suggest deliberately) to undiscriminating collectors. In the absence of any requirement for dealers in most countries to keep any kinds of records where exactly their stock comes from, unscrupulous and careless individuals can get away with passing looted and smuggled antiquities quite openly on the market (the one they call "legitimate"). They know full well that they can almost always get away with it, and that it does not damage the reputation of the market and marketeers among the unthinking and could-not-care-less collecting fraternity.
So is there any way to tell to what extent this is happening? Not directly there is not, not until dealers in such items are required to keep and curate proper records. But I think it is sometimes possible to infer to some degree what is happening by looking at just what an individual dealer has on sale. For this it is helpful to have antiquities that are 'addressed sources', that is they carry in and on them information that was deliberately put there by their makers. Typical examples are shabtis and of course coins.
Let us do a preliminary thought-experiment to see how the two groups of objects would most likely differ when they surface on the open market. Let us use coins as our example, and let us look at the handy database provided by the V-Coins portal (supposedly the one with all dealers subscribing to a code of ethics). Search outlets like V-coins and you'll find several thousand by typing "Syria" in the search box. Virtually none of them have any up-front collecting history in the sales offer.
So we'd be looking for coins from colonies like Arados, Byblos, Sidon, Tyre. The kingdom of Commagene, Seleukis and Pieria, Coele-Syria, Phoenicia, et al. Then a whole series of Roman provincial and imperial issues, early Byzantine stuff up to the first third of the seventh century (though later Byzantine coins are also found in the area) then a whole series of Islamic issues, both local and from the Early Medieval Caliphates and later coins (though these are not as shiftable on the US market as the 'ancients').
Pattern A: Hypothetical Dealer's offering created from purchasing old collections
Since many collectors are frequently quite systematic about their collecting, one would expect a real old collection lot to have a fair range of items spread across a theme. A collector will attempt to buy the best quality coins they can afford. While rarer coins in the collection may be low-quality examples, a collector will buy a higher quality example of a more common coin. The 'quality control' standards of the collector will be apparent from what a dealer offers. Collection coins are unlikely to have any earth or unsightly encrustations on them. Cabinet toning may be recognisable. Most collectors will have sorted and identified their coins. This allows a dealer to offer them individually with the greatest of ease. Only in the case of a collector consistently accumulating low-grade material would the creation of 'job-lots' make sense.
Pattern B: Hypothetical Dealer's offering created from purchasing 'freshly surfaced' material
Since these are created by the opportunistic acquisition of random finds, there will be a more uneven spread of coin types represented. The condition of the coins will vary. Many of the coins, irrespective of how common they are, will be of low quality because the middlemen through whose hands these coins passed picked out the better coins to sell individually. Some coins will have been cleaned in a preliminary fashion, some may have earth and encrustations still on them. These coins may have artificially induiced cabinet-toning (or acquired it from long warehousing somewhere), but it is generally not present. Most of these coins arrive from the seller not individually laid out in coin trays, but jumbled bags. One of the easiest ways to get rid of such bulk coins often of poor quality (poor preservation, off-centred, misstrikes) in order to keep the cash-flow going is to separate them out rapidly into job lots ("seven Greek coins") offered at knock-down prices, while the better coins will be offered individually.
Pattern C: Hypothetical Picky-Choosy Dealer's offering
Some dealers do not buy direct from either group of source, but are known to select individual coins from other dealers and then sell them on at a profit. These will usually be better quality coins or more esoteric issues of interest to the specialist collector. This dealer can if he chooses pick items with good collecting histories, perhaps to bulk out a group of coins which have none. To some extent all dealers do a bit of this, but for Pattern C dealers' stock, this is the main mechanism for their creation.
Pattern D: Dealer's offering With No Discernable Pattern
Some dealers have stocks which defy any attempt to understand (even in the form of a hypothesis) how they were accumulated in the absence of any other information.
Now, of course it is not quite as simple as that. A pattern A stock will very quickly shed certain coins, while the poorer quality common coins may lay in it for years. In the end, the dealer may lump several together in a job lot to get rid of them. This may lead to something developing from a 'pure pattern A' assemblage which looks like a "pattern B" one. This means that the ability to sort the V-Coins by "date added" is needed to decipher the changes in the assemblage pattern more accurately.
So how many dealers on V-Coins have "Pattern B" assemblages on offer today? Without naming names, I can see at least two very clear examples of this kind of pattern and it would be very interesting to know where these two US dealers obtained those coins from. Have a look yourselves and consider what it means that none of these coins have up-front any information whatsoever where they come from, given what is written above. Are there any other explanations, if so, what are they in these particular cases? I can see another dozen or so highly disturbing assemblages which should raise the same sort of questions among collectors (and US law enforcement authorities, not to mention those who run the supposedly "ethical" coin dealers' portal V-Coins). I can see a couple of apparent "Pattern C" dealers and lots of "pattern D". What do these patterns really mean? Isn't it about time we made an effort to find out, and try and work out where the looted coins are going?
After all, not everybody believes in the Coin Fairies and Coin Elves which, so far, are the only other explanation.
Map: The region these antiquities are coming from.