Saturday, 1 August 2015

Inside the Underground Trade to Sell off Syria's History

Two journalists based in Istanbul - Mike Giglio (BuzzFeed News correspondent who has reported on the wars in Syria and Ukraine and unrest around the Middle East) and Munther al-Awad  have written an excellent piece on the looting in Syria which should be on the reading list this month of anyone interested in following the discussion. This text is well written, insightful and gives the views of both sides equal prominence. There are no villains, no victims' just the curious story of lives intertwined: 'Inside the Underground Trade to Sell off Syria's History' BuzzFeed July 30th 2015.  It is also a fantastic source of information which supplements previous texts by other journalists about the shadowy processes. It very long and has quite a complicated structure and therefore I was interested in the way it was put together and how the various parts relate to each other.

 Giglio writes of an experienced trader who he calls 'Mohamed' who helped him make contacts:
Over the course of a month, I traveled along Turkey’s 565-mile-long border with Syria to meet more than a dozen people involved in this illegal trade, from the grave robbers and excavators who steal the artifacts to the middlemen and dealers who sell them. They showed me photos and videos of items for sale and let me view in person three high-value objects [...] that are normally kept hidden from anyone who isn’t part of this underground world. For the same reasons as Mohamed, all requested anonymity. Convinced that their artifacts were destined for Western buyers, these sources opened a window onto the extent of the looting and the guile and professionalism with which their trade is carried out. They also spoke to the desperation that fuels the pillage. “We have been living in a war for more than four years, and people will do anything to feed their kids,” said one middleman on the border, guilt-ridden over his role in bleeding Syria’s history. “I don’t care if the artifact is coming from [rebels] or from ISIS. I just want to sell it.”
and of course the buyers who will not ask care still less - they too just want to sell it.

Scene one, Hatay province Turkey:
Mohamed (Syrian black-market antiquities dealer in his mid-thirties, who began trading stolen antiquities in 2003, now lives in Turkey with refugee family - sells worldwide). He has a mosaic from Apamea to sell.
Mohamed bought it for $21,000 from a dealer in Syria and hoped to sell it for $30,000. He guessed the mosaic might change hands once or twice more from there — and that its final destination, like its original one in ancient times, would be a rich person’s villa. [...] By this point, he will be a forgotten part of the mosaic’s long history. “I’m invisible,” he said.
Scene two Apamea Syria
Mention of a six-person gang of 'diggers'  working near Apamea with permission from a local rebel group ("rolling a bulldozer over acres of land to turn up small artifacts or uncover clues that might lead to a greater score, such as an ancient burial cave"). Two members of the group were interviewed, presumably on the Turkish side of the border.

Scene three Deir Ezzor province
Some interesting videos are embedded [the link does not work on my computer] They came from an activist on the border who "said came from a dig outside the eastern city of Deir Ezzor last year [...] but the exact location of the dig was unclear, as was who controlled that patch of turf at the time". One of the film shows documentary material from Dura Europos. The holes are rather large, and impressed one viewer who thought they look rather like an archaeological excavation in progress [UPDATE see here].

Scene four London
Discussion with archaeologists who specialize in the region. St John Simpson (BM) and Mark Altaweel, (UCL)

Scene five Deir Ezzor province
An interesting interview:
A former museum worker from Deir Ezzor, a 45-year-old Syrian who goes by the nickname Abu Karim, said he was struck by the extent of ISIS’s antiquities operations when he saw them up close. I met Abu Karim at a café in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa, near the border with ISIS territory. He said his prewar job was restoring antiquities, taking him to museums and archaeological sites around the country. When the fighting started, he made rebel groups maps of places to search for ruins and helped them dig. He cringed at the looting, he said, but hoped the money would pay for things like weapons and schools. When ISIS overran much of Deir Ezzor last summer, it was quick to offer him an ultimatum, he said: Work with us or die. [...]  Six weeks later, fearing for his life, he escaped, reaching Turkey last fall. He said he was sure ISIS had done fine without him. “They have found a lot of artifacts,” he said.
Abu Karim described the equipment the diggers had - metal detectors and specialist treasure hunting equipment,  bulldozers, hydraulic diggers, and boxes of dynamite.
ISIS allowed civilians with the know-how to dig on their own, granting them special permission and charging a 20% tax, Abu Karim said. He also said that ISIS employed special teams to target high-value sites. Experts and sources on the black market supported both of these ideas.
Scene six: Trans-border communication
Middlemen on the Turkish side obtain by smartphone photos of the fresh dugups from the looters in Syria and then try to market them.  It seems a business opportunity for a number of people:
In the Turkish city of Antakya, near the Syrian border, a 38-year-old former lawyer and his business partner, a 32-year-old former car salesman, were the kind of middlemen who didn’t have the funds to buy valuable antiquities themselves. Instead, they used the photos to line up buyers, aiming to take a commission. [...] The pair told me they had met Western buyers before, though I couldn’t confirm it. 
Giglio received a cache of such photos from a middleman [UPDATE: see here].

Scene seven: Gaziantep
Visit with Mohamed to Gaziantep, to a Turkish dealer to see a Hellenistic bronze statue "said to have been dug up in Turkey" (but who knows?):
Whatever the statue’s origins, it was another item sucked up into a black market that grows with the unrest across the Middle East. One reason Syrian items sell so easily is that this global exchange predated the war; dealers with international connections have often simply folded the new Syrian artifacts into their businesses. [...]  Mohamed said he [...] had in mind a buyer who lived in Turkey, he said, and if the price came down he could likely arrange a sale. I asked what would happen to the statue if it ended up in his buyer’s hands. “Direct to Europe,” he said. “It’s impossible to stop this business: in Europe, in the United States, in all the world.” The first stop for illicit Syrian antiquities is usually Lebanon or Turkey.
The Turkish dealer:
was happy to have an American along for the ride. His best client, in fact, was an American, he said. He described the client as a man of about 50 who visited a few times a year with a translator. The last trip had been a few months before. “He is a really good guy,” the man said, “and he pays a lot of money.”
And his clients even more I guess. [Numbers 32:23].

Scene eight an East-West split?
Discussion of the views of Christopher Marinello (Art Recovery Group) who suggests that most of the  artefacts stay in Turkey and Lebanon.
Rising scrutiny in the West over artifacts coming from Syria has discouraged even the sale of legal items, he said. “I think the market is shrinking, because this stuff is radioactive,” he said. “The better dealers stay away from it.” Marinello said it was the idea of selling items to Western buyers — and not Western buyers themselves — that was likely fueling the demand. “I think it’s the middlemen who think that they’re going to find a Western market, and then find a lot of Western markets closed,” he said, adding that there was little hard evidence to support the idea of illicit Syrian antiquities being purchased on a significant scale in the West.
Other experts disagree, Mark Altaweel (UCL) suggests that lack of hard evidence is a result of the traditional practices of the no-questions-asked trade leading to the obscuring of the origins of artefacts which is allowing looted Syrian artefacts to be sold in the western markets.
“How can you know when and where these things were acquired? It’s just what the dealer tells you.” Expensive items can also be sold directly to collectors. “It’s all about who is connected to whom,” Altaweel said. “It’s a very personalized trade.” 
Scene ten: the photo cache
Mark Giglio had been given "by one middleman", a cache of more than 50 photos [see Update here]. He showed them to a number of archaeologists, who decided that "many appeared to be fake, reflecting a view held by Mohamed and other sources on the black market that there are at least as many fakes as genuine artifacts for sale".
Some of the items from my cache that the experts thought were authentic had already appeared on websites suspected of selling illegal antiquities, according to Sam Hardy, an archaeologist working to document looted items from Syria. In some cases it was the same image; in others the same object appeared to have been photographed at different times. “It looks like they’ve passed through the hands of different middlemen,” Hardy said. “Sometimes there is a long chain through which the material is laundered. It can make it practically impossible to trace.” Many looted artifacts have been uncovered only recently — and unlike those unlike those stolen from collections or museums, no one even knows they’re missing. “You literally don’t know what’s being taken,” Hardy said. “We have so little information.”
Scene eleven: the Art Market
Interviews with Tom Keatinge (Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London),  Michael Danti (ASOR)
The extent of the legal trade in antiquities is hard to grasp, let alone the black market. [...] “The standards of due diligence and checking the provenance of antiquities clearly varies wildly,”
Scene twelve Palmyra busts
I have inserted some very interesting additional information deriving from Giglio's text into the earlier Palmyra Bust Smashing text as the two accounts supplement each other in an amazing manner. Who would have thought that a dealer who had these busts in Turkey in fact conspired to smuggle them from Turkey back through Syria and on to Lebanon, because Turkish authorities are believed to now be far more diligent about cracking down on the trade than their counterparts in Lebanon? We assumed at the time that the objects were being taken out of ISIL territory to Turkey, now it appears they were travelling the other way.

Scene thirteen: The London Art Market 

The piece ends with a rather romanticised vision of the Good Dealer (you know who was interviewed of course) who makes sure that "no illicit items come through his doors", like - he insists - "many dealers". He admits though that some antiquities dealers "still keep the practices of a more freewheeling past".
“Obviously there are elements of this market that need cleaning up,” he said. “It’s a legacy of different times.” One of Clist’s roles at the gallery is to stand guard against people like Mohamed, checking the provenance of the antiquities he purchases and keeping an eye out for any tricks. “We know that world exists,” he said, sitting in the gallery’s elegant library. “This is our world. We want to make sure that these two worlds never come together.”
Very nice sentiments, I am sure.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.