Thursday, 27 November 2014

Dealers Again: "No Evidence of Trade in Ancient Artefacts Funding ISIS" (2)

The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art claims they have "proven" that there is 'No Evidence of Trade in Ancient Art Funding ISIS' (Basel, November 25, 2014). Their published  argument is, to put it mildly, weak and based just on two 'sources', one post in a journalist's blog and one weekend newspaper article. That's it.

It's particularly annoying that the dealers and collectors persist in maintaining this totally superficial approach to the whole issue when there are a lot of people making a lot of effort to produce better information, and more nuanced analyses on the basis of the slim information we can get from an illicit activity conducted by several secretive and dangerous groups in a country ripped apart by civil war. There are people out there on the ground risking a lot trying to get this information to us, something just totally dismissed contemptuously by the IADAA spokesperson for the antiquities trade. How dare they? The responsible legitimate trade should be trying to help us make sense of this information as a whole rather than  trying simply to pick holes in other people's work like this. And I stress that, the truly legitimate and responsible part of the trade - where is it?

I am not in the so-called "ancient art trade", I would not know where to get a Tell Brak figurine from. But there are people who do, and - as we all have had the opportunity to observe for as long as I've been watching the market - have been doing it for a good number of years. My suggestion is that these are the very people who'd very likely have an interest in hiding precisely how that Tell Brak figurine, that cylinder seal, that cunie, came on the European market. Because, they are not really going to succeed in kidding anyone these days that they really are all "from an old collection, found at the back of a dealer's cupboard" and have accidentally just happened to have "lost its label".

The subject of looting in Iraq and Syria is not a new one, there are many, many texts on the subject. I've discussed some of them on this blog, in some cases finding reason to agree with the conclusions, sometimes being sceptical of some elements of the reconstructed narrative. This blog is full of my observations on these issues (I am not going to hyperlink them all here, there's a search box at the top of this page). That is certainly a vast amount more writing about and sharing views and observations about these issues than most dealers (and we are told there are several thousand of them) have been doing. All they can do is moan, snipe and try and pick holes. None of them will engage in any real, deep, searching discussion, and when they do say something it never goes much beyond the superficial (and the ad hominems for which the milieu is infamous). 

The dealers will have to explain - if that is what they claim - how it is at all possible that trade in antiquities is going on under the noses of ISIL, but the latter are keeping their distance from it. 
Perhaps the dealers lobbyists will deny looting of archaeological artefacts is going on in Syria and Iraq and has been for some time. I am among the many who believe the evidence shows it is.

Perhaps the dealers lobbyists will deny smuggling of archaeological artefacts out of Syria and Iraq is going on and has been for some time. I am among the many who believe the evidence shows it is.

Certainly some of the sites which we know have been heavily looted (Dura Europos, Mari) are in ISIL-held territory (others are outside it).

Certainly some of the smuggling routes we know of are through ISIL-held territory. Others are outside it.

Basically, those who ask us to believe that ISIL is not taking funds from this activity ask us to simply accept that for some magical reason (coin dzinns?), the antiquities trade is treated in some privileged way by ISIL. Let's be clear, the opportunities the commodity offers are ignored by ISIL leaders, by ISIL local commanders, as well as by the individual groups of trigger and knife-happy young men who get 400 dollars a month to oversee what's going on on the ground. we are asked to believe that these opportunities are ignored by the ISIL who reports say are inserting themselves into deep into the daily lives and control the behaviour of the 'citizens' of their polity. They are simply, but mysteriously, ignored by the same ISIL who reports say uses all manner of pretexts to extort payment in one form or another from anybody and everybody. That is the ISIL whose finances have (insofar as the data allows) been analysed by dedicated 'terror finance analysts' and whose income is thought to come from a variety of forms of transactions involving even mundane commodities such as grain.

Furthermore the IADAA (and all who want us to dismiss from our heads the idea that ISIL can be getting their cut of the profits of any antiquities trade) ask us to believe that in today's Syria and Iraq, groups of people can, without attracting any attention to themselves:
- dig huge holes in the open, pull out objects which may be assumed to have some value,
- sell them on to a middleman who fills a suitcase or truck with them,
- the latter can then drive them on somewhere to sell to somebody else,
- somewhere in the process objects arrive at a border, somebody is bribed to let the illicit goods out, (and over the border somebody most likely has to be bribed to let the smuggler in).
Yet all of this we are asked to believe would take place without ISIL asking for a cut? Furthermore that all these people are working independently of, and have zero contact with, any ISIL people, they are free agents working for themselves and contributing nothing to ''The Islamic State'. 

Now of course we can all assume that this is the case. I am sure it is the most comfortable assumption to make if you are a collector or dealer. But there is, isn't there, a greater likelihood that this is all self-delusion. Like much else in antiquities collecting of course - so nothing new there.

As is noted by Sam Hardy, who has done much sterling work on Conflict Antiquities, and especially that in Syria and Iraq recently:

[...]  As has been conclusively demonstrated – as has been confessed by participants – sites are being looted by paramilitaries and antiquities are being sold by paramilitaries.

As has been explained – repeatedly – the key question is not “how much money are they making?” but “how can we minimise the money that they are making?” And we can only do that through material protection, trade regulation and policing.
Yet what we see the antiquities trade engaged in is distracting polemic about the first quite clerly intended to stave off the possibilities of the second ever happening.

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