Friday, 28 November 2014

ISIL Antiquities in June 2014: so "Unimaginable"?

'Adnan Isma'il Najam Al-Bilawi
The report of the content of the "al-Bilawi memory sticks" has been a problem since they first appeared in the discussions of the effects of the current political situation in Syria and Iraq back in June. Discussion has flared up again as antiquity dealers tried to pull a fast one and pretend that the information that they contain refering to antiquities was totally invented by a Guardian journalist. In response to these accusations, Sam Hardy has gone through the evidence and concluded that the records examined by Martin Chulov did indeed refer to funds raised by antiquities dealing. Of course the dealers' lobby is already pouring scorn on such an idea, and especially the rather high sum said to be involved (35 million dollars). Readers may be aware that the same thing happened when there was extensive looting in Iraq from 2003 onwards - then the dealers to a man denied that any of them had ever left Iraq and arrived on their market (despite the fact that not a few were documented already in the US and elsewhere at the time they were saying this).

One possibility remains that the 2003+ looting in Iraq (documented on the ground and in satellite photos) resulted in stockpiles of antiquities, bought cheap at source and mothballed in a secure store as an investment, say a retirement nest-egg for some local wiseguy - intended to be sold piecemeal when the fuss dies down in a decade or so. We know holes were dug, stuff hoiked, US and European dealers tell us it never arrived on any market they know -  postulating such warehouses is therefore one (pretty good) way of explaining that evidence.  What's more, nobody can say that there are not such warehouses.

Somewhere in Iraq, what's in this building?
If they exist, they could be veritable treasure houses, the buyer had the pick of a vast amount of numbers of objects from the tens of thousands of holes dug in 'productive' areas of productive sites. They could afford to buy the best of the best, sawn-up Assyrian friezes, glyptic  material, cunies, Sumerian statues, Akkadian jewellery, Seleucid bronzes, and coins, loads of coins. You can just imagine it. Rather like a Swiss freeport, just somewhere at the end of a dirt track in the Middle Eastern desert.

You can also imagine it when one day some armed thugs bust their way into the hoarder's house, thrust an AK in the face of his daughter and bawls out that he'll pull the trigger if he does not hand over the keys - and when he gets the keys anyway blows a hole in her head. And then the hoarder's. They'd come with some guy who knows the trade - ISIL has access to specialists in many fields - who picks out the pieces that give more bucks per transport costs, load them up on some trucks and off they go with them to some market. They can come back for more with impunity until they empty the store of the best bits. Them they might use informants to tell them where the next one is. Plausible? You bet. Did it happen? Could have.

You can imagine too, can't you, the smiling Lebanese dealer shaking hands with the well-dressed man offering him some prime antiquities. The seller is an ISIL political officer, suave and well-groomed in a suit. The dealer is anticipating a good profit, he has some clients on his list (15000 people, you know) who he knows will be very interested in those Assyrian reliefs, no need to put them on open sale, he can sell directly. The coins he can shift too, to America - nobody there asks any difficult questions. Plausible? You bet. Did it happen? Could have.

The point I am making is not that this is what happened. The point is that one cannot simply dismiss the  information of the Al-Bilawi memory sticks because the total sum mentioned is - as Sam said - "unimaginable". One can imagine a plausible scenario - we just did. It is entirely plausible that there are stockpiles of unsold looted and mothballed antiquities somewhere in the region, it is entirely plausible that someone has the keys. We know ISIL paramilitaries have guns and trucks and need to make money.  We know they can find a market of plenty people who, presented with good material at a tempting price  are not going to ask too many questions and are all-too ready to delude themselves that, as the seller asserts, are from "an old collection, my late grandfather".

That mundane fragment, the Montreal Achaemenid head (21 x 22.5 cm), if real, is valued at 1.2 million Canadian dollars (that's about a million USD). All you need is a truck load of, say, 50 or so bits like that sold cheaper to make the 36 million. The question is, do we think there are warehouses of looted stuff just waiting for an aggressive  militant group to find and exploit to their own ends, and if so, is there a shortage in them of pieces whose value on the black (or any other) market is akin to that stated for the Montreal fragment?


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