Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Near Eastern Conflict Antiquities Crisis as seen from France

The pressure is now on the antiquities trade in France due to spreading concern over the Syrian Conflict Antiquities Crisis. Martine Robert ('Sur les traces des antiquités pillées par l'Etat islamique' Les Echoes  26th November 2014) suggests that the flow of artefacts looted from archaeological sites and looting have accelerated in Syria and Iraq since the taking of Mosul and Nineveh province last summer. She places this in the context of what has happened in other conflicts such as the Iraq-Iran war. The main problem is that the plundered artefacts are not being sold to museums and reputable institutions by the major auction houses, but to private collectors via small dealers or the 'underground internet'. The article suggests that the Gulf and Bangkok are hubs of trafficking, and apart from collectors in the traditional  European and US market, there may be new players Russia, China, Japan, the Gulf. An interesting new element in the story is that the traffic of looted artefacts seems to be being bulked out by fakes traded with them (which we see in Egypt too). The author admits that it is difficult to calculate the value of the looted objects, but points out that it could be considerable.   

Jean-François Charnier, scientific Director of the Agence France-Muséums, responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi project tresses that this looting and smuggling need not be centrally planned by rebel paramilitary groups (or renegade government forces), and indicates that it is in the hands of local mafias linked to warlords:
On a affaire à des mafias locales liées aux chefs de guerre, qui font passer ces biens à des acheteurs peu regardants, à des marchands turcs, syriens, jordaniens, iraniens, irakiens, libanais, à des intermédiaires permettant de toucher l'Europe ou les Etats-Unis [...] Pour France Desmarais, nul doute que ce soit « une source de revenus régulière pour l'Etat islamique, à travers trois formes de pillage - opportuniste, commandé, autorisé - assorties de racket ».
One possible reason why we are not seeing a sudden influx of items onto the market is explained by
Edouard Planche, specialist in the UNESCO program against illicit trafficking of cultural property and  Béatrice André-Salvini, director of the Louvre Department of Oriental Antiquities:
Pour écouler ces trésors, des processus très lents sont mis en place. Les pièces sont d'abord conservées localement, puis transportées de pays voisins en pays voisins jusqu'aux places de marché de l'art. « Les étapes sont multipliées pour brouiller les pistes. Lors de pillages en 2003, les oeuvres majeures, très compliquées à vendre, ont été enterrées dans des fermes aux environs de Bagdad et on ne les a vues réapparaître que longtemps après, au compte-gouttes », précise Béatrice André-Salvini. « Ce qui sort de Syrie et d'Irak passe beaucoup par la Turquie, malgré les contrôles, pour atteindre les marchés londoniens, suisses, français, américains. Mais nombre de ces pièces ne réapparaissent pas sur les marchés avant des années », renchérit Edouard Planche.
I'm not sure how much this article adds new to the discussion, some of it is derivative the sources for the article are mainly Louvre and UNESCO-based. The information about the Bonhhams stele of Adad-nerari III of Assyria (c. 805-797 B.C. from Tell Sheikh Hamad in NE Syria appears here again and some of the information seems unduly speculative (something this blog has noted about other UNESCO-pronouncements on the topic). Still, it is worth noting as an opinion.

[And before some dealer intent on deflection of what is important points it out... the photo that accompanies the article is not of current looting in Syria, but a stock photo taken c. 2010 in south central Iraq. It's still a worrying shot]. 

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