Sunday, 14 December 2014

Assumptions at Basis of 'Debunking' Syrian Militant Antiquities Profits

Somewhere in Iraq...
What is in this building?
Neil Brodie is being quoted by the dealers' lobbyists because in a text he is quoted (among other things, the lobbyists neglect to mention the rest) as questioning "the financial figures put on looting and has called for proper verification". As are we all. He then goes on, regardless, to discuss some figures:
“I don’t believe these figures,” he says. “In 2013, Sotheby’s New York turned over $20m in antiquities sales from the entire Mediterranean and Middle East area, so ISIL would need to be making more than Sotheby’s from one site (sic).* For another perspective, assuming found antiquities in Syria are worth $50 each (which is an optimistic estimate), ISIL would need to have found and sold 720,000 antiquities.”
The figure he's dismissing was from ISIL memory sticks seized near Mosul which is a source from within ISIL (though reported second/third hand through Iraqi intelligence sources). Certainly there is need of verification, and all we can do is go on what little evidence, direct, indirect and assumptions, as we have until there are better data available. I would say however that in the face of the massive destruction we see, the question of "how much is this-or-that warlord making out of all this?" is actually a secondary issue to all but nit-picking dealers trying to pick a hole in the arguments of others.

I do not know why he takes $50 as the benchmark, when we know that mosaics have been smuggled (say 200k each) Palmyra grave busts (c. $10000), a head of Alexander reached over two million yesterday at Christie's. The antiquities of the memory sticks passed through Ar-Nabuk on their way to Lebanon, whether to a dealer or collector/investor is unknown. This however is an important factor in understanding these data. As also is knowing (as Sam Hardy points out) at what stage on the chain of dealership the sellers at this point were. Brodie does not know this, nor do I. Nor, however do the naysaying dealers in far off Munich, Frankfurt, Washington or New York.

I have already suggested that those dismissing the values given as 'unrealistic' are ignoring one source of illicit antiquities. They are automatically basing their opinions on the idea that the only things going out of Iraq and Syria in the hands of cultural racketeers working under (or even for the benefit of) this or that militant group are what is currently being dug up or being dismounted from standing monuments. I have already suggested (PACHI riday, 28 November 2014, 'ISIL Antiquities in June 2014: so "Unimaginable"?') that what could be being shifted are artefacts stockpiled from Iraqi looting (which began in the period of sanctions before the 2003 invasion as well as after it). Also items were stolen from museums in the early years of the Syrian civil war which may now be surfacing.

Indeed, I am one of those that think it is very likely that may of the antiquities looted a decade ago from sites in Iraq are still in the country. Probably the individuals who accumulated them (probably bought at rock-bottom prices when there was  glut of such things on the black market) saw them as an investment for the future, a secure old age sending a few antiquities of high value onto the market every few months once the fuss has died down. Such plans would easily look threatened the moment that a group of fundamentalist militia on the make starts poking around your property. An iconoclastic group to boot. Anyone in Iraq or adjacent areas who has laid away a store of looted antiquities, high end or low end, probably feels threatened by ISIL expansion. They may decide to move (or sell) their goods before somebody else with a gun does. Or maybe what the "al-Bilawi memory sticks" record is what happens when men with guns and an eye for a profit already have. Possibly, in both cases, the ones to go first might be the bulkier high end ones. And there may well be more than one well-heeled buyer out there, in Turkey, Lebanon, Dubai, Doha or wherever willing to pay good money for the cream of a collection. I do not think there is anything "unimaginable" in that.

* he has not understood the report.

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