Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Antiquities Coalition Struts its Stuff

Blue-eyed sumerians
Yet another article from America about "looting funding terrorism" (Deborah M. Lehr, Katie A. Paul, 'Rocking the Cradle of Civilization: Antiquities Theft Funding Terrorists', Huffington Post, The Blog 2nd July 2014). Deborah Lehr is Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition (AC) and a board member of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). Katie Paul is Research Director of the AC and a member of the Cultural Heritage Policy Committee of the AIA. The article starts off well:
Terrorist and criminal networks are instigators of "cultural racketeering," -- the systematic looting of antiquities for profit -- in the cradle of civilization. These criminal networks are robbing from our past to fund their terrorist activities, intimidate and undermine already struggling countries.
Then we have the "seized flash drives" story which remains to be verified ("they revealed that ISIS was systematically looting sites in Iraq and Syria to fundraise in the lucrative antiquities markets". There is the added information: "Just last year, imports from Syria to the United States increased over 1300 percent. There is a direct link with the civil war and the rise in availability of Syrian antiquities". And still loose artefacts of probable Syrian origin are sold by could-not-care-less US dealers (see some examples on V-coins) without any indication up-front where they came from and when.

The idea that terrorist networks use cultural racketeering to fundraise for their causes is not new, but it has been difficult to prove. Lehr and Paul reckon they can, but it has to be admitted that the evidence they chose is not the best. The "groundbreaking evidence of the links between the Khmer Rouge and its looting of key archaeological sites at the height of Cambodia's civil war" is neither particularly groundbreaking (Neal Brodie was writing about this in his Cambridge days, Lehr and Paul seem to be taking their cue here from Heather Pringle's rather dubious National Geographic article).

I was however totally disappointed in their treatment of Egypt. I think their analysis of the Malawi Museum thefts (nor exactly just "outside of Cairo") is unduly simplistic and - more importantly - needlessly pandering to the current Sisi regime's definition of "terrorism" as a justification for imprisoning journalists and protesters. Lehr and Paul seem loosely to equate all "Islamic extremists" (read: Islamic fundamentalists) and terrorists. That is an equation I cannot accept (I wonder whether the authors of this text know any fundamentalist Christians, the USA seems not to lack them).  I am beginning to see what Derek Fincham was getting at (Cf my earlier comments two weeks ago). This kind of flattening of a complex picture, making an ideology out of a few scattered facts put into a pre-existing framework is getting nobody anywhere.

Neither do I think it helps quoting "how much money the bad guys are making" when this is only guesswork about a highly clandestine business. Where, oh where have "$3 billion worth" of ancient Egyptian (and Islamic?) antiquities gone "since 2011"? Where are they? Lehr and Paul suggest provocatively "The United States has the dubious honor of being one of the largest markets for these illicit antiquities" and yet in the past three years, US customs have not stopped more than a van-load. Either US Customs are wholly ineffective and as blind as bats (which prompts one to wonder what other more dangerous things are getting through the barrier of bubbles), or the Antiquities Coalition (or whoever they are getting their figures from) have got it wrong. Which is it, and how can we tell?

I may eat my words when we have an MOU and we can see what is coming in properly documented and (one hopes) vigilance will be increased for that which is not. I wonder what the signs are that suggest to the Antiquities Coalition that there is much more of this dodgy stuff on the US market (if they've seen it, why have they simply not shopped the sellers?). While, nasty cynic that I am, I do not believe any antiquity dealer on principle, let us note that several of them have asserted that they really have not seen any increase in artefacts offered from Egypt (this came up several times at the public hearing about the MOU). While, since dealers obviously have a vested interest in dissuading the US administration from placing any controls on the free movement of whatever they want to import,  we may take that with a pinch of salt, I think it should go on record. So, where are Lehr and Paul getting this information from?

Then the remedy. There is nothing here to disagree with, the only question is "can we start now?":
This global crisis requires a global solution [...]  For countries in crisis, there should be an absolute moratorium on the import of antiquities without appropriate documentation to prove their legality. [...] By working with those in the financial and antiquities retail communities, American investigators can shut down the criminal networks that use antiquities to fundraise or launder money. 
But here is the issue, first we have to know what those networks are and how they work. Activists pumping out through the media to which they have access dodgy information and guesswork (or propaganda) may aim to raise public awareness and concern, but are not aiding that process and hindering it. Can we aim for more transparent analysis of carefully gathered (and documented) data and more responsible reporting? The second problem is that the US currently has a completely inadequate legal system by which such measures could be executed. From this point of view, the CCPIA is a piece of legal junk. In order to use it to stop the import of artefacts smuggled out of Syria, the Assad regime must ask the US to sign a bilateral cultural property agreement (MOU) and then the CPAC would have to sit and discuss it and then the US agree. Can anyone see that actually happening in the current situation between the two countries? When will we see a Syria-US bilateral MOU? Probably only when the current civil war is over (and then, presumably not if it's won by the Islamists). The CCPIA needs rethinking and rewriting to take into account the changes in the world, the role of the US in it and the antiquities market since the 1980s. Despite the fact that this internal change will not be coming soon (and they do not even mention this),  Deborah Lehr and Katie Paul clearly see a leading role of the USA to promote change:
The United States is well-positioned to lead this charge. At a time when the administration seeks a new role in the changing landscape of the Middle East, standing up to protect a nation's identity can make an important difference. [...]  It is in the interest of the United States as a driver of demand for these historic artifacts to be a part of the solution. And the United States may be the only country with the means to do so. The U.S. can bring together these countries under attack with experts from the security, heritage, and commercial fields to explore solutions and provide support. Also, the State Department can and should proactively work with countries under subject to mass looting to negotiate Cultural Heritage agreements. And it should use its authority as appropriate to direct Customs to stop the importation of antiquities from countries under attack [...] This must happen now, while the artifacts of our civilization still exist.  
I think we can all support such a process as long as it truly is done in the spirit of helping other nations as equal partners and is not an action focussed only on serving Washington's own local agendas and interests. This is why it has to be a truly global collaborative effort.

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