Friday, 29 May 2015

Foreign Policy: Rouge Archaeologists Involved in ISIL Antiquities Trade

David Francis has just produced 'A How-To Guide To Buying Artifacts Looted by the Islamic State' (Foreign Policy May 28, 2015) and begins it like this:
Let’s say you’re a rich Manhattan hedge fund manager in the market for an artifact from Palmyra, the archeological wonder in Syria currently being pillaged by the Islamic State. How, exactly, would you go about getting your hands on one? First, a word of caution: Purchasing antiquities on the black market is illegal. And it’s the second largest source of funding for the Islamic State, so your money would be directly supporting terrorism. Relics taken from one region of Syria alone reportedly enriched the Islamic State by $36 million, and Americans are among their biggest buyers. In other words, under no circumstances should you do what I’ve outlined below. But because stolen artifacts are such an (sic) key part of the Islamic State’s finances, it’s important to understand how the trade works.
Well, first of all that "second biggest source" junk was debunked a while ago, and it is disturbing to see the magazine's editors letting that through. That "$36 million" came from the Iraqis and given their subsequent record in palming heritage-related factoids of 'dubious verisimilitude' off onto the international media (now the "100 billion dollar" figure), I think we all take that one with a mighty pinch of salt these days. And actually, according to US dealers and their lobbyist mates  if "no US law is broken" then buying dodgy black market stuff is not illegal in the US (where article 3 of the 1970 UNESCO convention is merely superciliously sneered at).
If you’re willing to set aside your moral scruples, experts told FP Thursday that getting into the market for relics looted from Iraq and Syria is a relatively straightforward process. It takes some shady dealings with some even shadier characters, and you’re not likely to be able to flip the artifact any time soon. But if you’re determined, relics are out there for the taking.“
It turns out the experts he's asked are Michael Danti (the originator of the "second biggest" claim) and  Amr Al-Azm. According to them, all you have to do is "go to your dealer" and for example "say you have a Palmyra-specific interest” (according to Danti). Now Danti knows, as do the rest of us, that Palmyra-specific objects were on the market well before ISIL or even Bashar Assad came on the scene. Just the other day I was discussing one which had an export licence suggesting it was in the trade in 2006 for example. So I really do not see how what we are presented with is in any way a "how-to guide to buying artefacts looted by the Islamic State'. Anyway, according to the FP journalist, "Here’s how a typical purchase would unfold:"
 It begins with the Islamic State looter, who actually steals the piece from inside Iraq or Syria. Then, this looter would contact a smuggler, who would pay the finder a tax as high a 50 percent of the artifact’s suspected price and use existing rat lines to get it out of the country. It would most likely end up in Turkey, according to Amr Al-Azm [...] Smugglers are “really well connected with the Turkish mafia,” [...] These smugglers then get in touch with traffickers, who peddle the objects to dealers. [...] if a dealer is interested, rouge (sic!) scholars and archaeologists will then begin to create what he calls a (sic) “a thin veil of legality” to create a false origin for the object.
Quite apart from the fact that the word is misspelt, I would like to see some backup for the next statement.  
“There’s a scholarly community that’s complicit with the dealers and the buyers who will authenticate. It’s pretty hard to tell the difference between legal and illegal sometimes.” 
They seem to be referring to activities in Turkey and unspecified "other countries near the conflict zone'. If that is so, then there is there no question about what is legal and illegal. But I think there is a confusion here between authentication of dodgy artefacts (ie picking out the fakes) and providing a paper trail of legitimacy (which in the case of illicit artefacts must necessarily be forgeries). Is Danti accusing the archaeologists of being the authors of these forged documents too, creating a thin veil of legality and a false origin for the object? Please Professor Danti, more data on this the next of your claims.  Let us hear more about these "rouge archaeologists" - who are they, where do they work? Where can one see one of their certificates of authenticity and that forged paperwork? There are tens of thousands of metal detectorists and coineys out there very eager to hear more. Anyway, to get back to the narrative:
Once a backstory for the relic is created, and the dealer and smuggler agree on price, the buyer hands over the cash [...]  and voilà, they’re the proud owners of an illegal artifact. But the purchaser still has to get his or her prize out of Turkey or other countries near the conflict zone. This is usually done through existing black market channels. If the buyer is willing to pay more, he or she can pay to speed up the process. According to Al-Azm, once the buyer has an the piece, there’s not much he or she can do other than to show it off to friends. He said reputable antiquity stores aren’t likely to buy anything with even the slightest hint of a false origin story. “It’s traded from dealer to dealer and buyer to buyer,” he said. “Most of it is going to sit, lay low for 15 years, then
The problem is this gets us no nearer to the ISIL looted stuff. The same goes for any artefact illicitly and clandestinely excavated in Iraq or Syria since 1970. It all went/goes through the same hands in the same way, the origins obscured, any incriminating documentation thrown away, and any paper trail the objects have more than likely faked or fiddled. I really doubt that Danti is right suggesting the paper trail is created by the middlemen. The reconstructed collecting histories cases we have been able to study (Ka Nefer Nefer, Cleveland/Leutwitz Apollo, the "Kalmakarra" rhyton, Mr Kapoor's stuff, the Koh Ker statues, the Medici and Becchina archives, the  Elias S. David stuff coming up in a few days at Christie's etc.) all involve documentation such as affidavits secured by the dealers offering them to outside buyers. Where is Professor Danti getting this information about how the antiquities market in ISIL-generated material from?

Now, let us identify these "rouge archaeologists" supporting illicit collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record and get them locked up. All of them. Who are they Professor Danti?

Vignette: Rogue windmill

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