Saturday, 5 December 2015

Ludicrous Lies and False Premises in New York 'The Real Value of the ISIS Antiquities Trade'?

Part of Abu Sayyef's private stash
(Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters/Landov)
There is some excitement in certain circles about an article by Ben Taub (a very recent graduate of Columbia’s Journalism School), 'The Real Value of the ISIS Antiquities Trade' New Yorker December 4, 2015. It is however a rather pedestrian and derivative piece and clearly confuses what the Abu Sayyaf haul was (his private stash, not the entire stocks of the ISIL “Diwan al-Rikaz”). The value of the items in that assemblage therefore quite obviously have no real bearing on the matter of the "real value of the ISIS Antiquities Trade". There is however some additional information about the Abu Sayyaf receipts:
At the Metropolitan, the State Department displayed only three out of the eight unique receipts found in Abu Sayyaf’s possession. It seemed odd that these three accounted for a mere twenty-four thousand dollars in taxes, less than a tenth of what Keller had declared as the cumulative tally. When a State Department press officer sent me partially redacted copies of the remaining receipts, I noticed that two of them accounted for eighty percent of all antiquities sales, and that the figures—a hundred and sixty-one thousand dollars and forty thousand dollars—had been recorded in dollars, while other accounting had been done in Syrian pounds. Did these two sales represent a vast haul of low-quality objects, or a few of extraordinary value? Did the eight handwritten receipts account for all antiquities sales over a six-month period, or was Abu Sayyaf a lousy accountant? After the State Department gave me the Arabic copies of Abu Sayyaf’s antiquities documents, I showed them to Bernard Haykel [...] [who] examined a section of Arabic text that hadn’t been translated for Keller’s slideshow at the Met. The document describes various roles within the antiquities division. It says, unambiguously, that the excavation teams should extract not only antiquities but also metals and minerals. Tamimi, the analyst who collects ISIS administrative documents, recently published new evidence that the group is desperately seeking and confiscating valuable metals and minerals. It is especially hungry for gold. In August, ISIS announced its financial system would return to the gold dinar of centuries’ past.
Taub was at the meeting at the Met at the end of September this year where the problem of "stemming the illicit antiquities trade" was discussed to “disrupt the group’s [ISIL's] ability to finance its operations and activities”.
Shortly afterward, an ancient-art dealer named Randall Hixenbaugh took to the microphone to express his bewilderment at the government line. “It seems odd to me that we’re this concerned about this as a money stream,” he said. “Of course it’s a major concern for cultural heritage, but it seems to be probably among the smallest revenue streams that this criminal organization has.” There was a pause. A moderator from the State Department replied, “We’re aiming to cut off all their revenue streams, however small it may be, to try to stop their activity.” With no apparent plan to quell the looting in Syria and Iraq, the government’s approach seems to be to scare or prosecute unscrupulous buyers. But Hixenbaugh argued that an “insatiable demand in the West” for looted Near Eastern antiquities does not actually exist. “There are hundreds of thousands of legally acquired antiquities from Mesopotamia in the United States,” he said. “Palmyra reliefs are generally unpopular. They often go unsold at auction.” A reporter who writes about the art market was unimpressed with Abu Sayyaf’s hoard. He leaned over and whispered to me, “The idea that there’s a shadowy mass of collectors interested in purchasing crap that they can never sell again is absolutely ludicrous. Nobody wants esoteric, untraceable numismatics.”
Ha, ha. Oh yes they do, the whole ACCG for a start. They do not care to 'trace' - still less document - anything, quite happily trading stuff which has "somehow lost" its paperwork. Once again we see the dealers attempting to deny the undeniable. Bare faced lies. That is what is ludicrous, utterly ludicrous about the US antiquities trade and its supporters. If the coins are untraceable to looting (because someone has got rid of any paper trail) the coins are eminently saleable on today's no-questions-asking market. I suggest Taub's unnamed journalist informant is not really all that well informed himself.

I guess Mr Hixenbaugh was art the wrong meeting, you'd hardly hold a gathering of people to discuss moves to disrupt ISIL's fossil fuel sales or tax policies in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Quite what the New York journalist means by the US government having "no apparent plan to quell the looting in Syria and Iraq", is unclear and muddling concepts. The US government runs the US, not Iraq (we see what a balls-up they made of that after 2003) nor Syria. What Iraqis and Syrians do in Iraq and Syria is not for the US to restrict or control any more than it is the Japanese or Russian right to stop Dick Stout or any other US citizen from artefact hunting an old 1880s schoolyard. What neo-imperialist ambitions hide behind Taub's words? What however is the remit, the role, of the US Government is indeed to prosecute unscrupulous buyers - how many have they actually charged to date? (actually in the case of post 2011 Syrian artefacts from ISIL, the answer is a big fat American hypocritical zero).

Mr Hixenbaugh, where'd you say those incantation bowls are from? "No demand" eh? But you've already sold three of the four.

This text is an egregious example of the sort of foggy and superficial thinking that seems to  accrue to the issue of looted items from the MENA region in the USA and concentrated mainly in the triangle New York-Boston-Washington (the aptly-named Foggy Bottom) which infests the rest of the debate. Will we see some straight talking and straight thinking from the USA on this issue, or not? What a pathetic muddle.

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