Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Ambassador Churkin Accuses Antiquity Collectors of Buying Directly from ISIL

Vitaly Churkin

Reuters are disseminating a news story based on a letter which Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin reportedly sent to the U.N. Security Council which was released on Wednesday (Louis Charbonneau, 'Islamic State nets millions from antiquities: Russia' Reuters Wed Apr 6th 2016 ['Russia's UN envoy warns world about antiquities trade that nets ISIS $200 million per year' Jerusalem Post 7th April 2016]). Although the  Russians have consistently been fighting mainly other groups in Syria to date - the letter seems to have concerned just the militants of ISIL in Syria and Iraq and repeats the familiar antiquities-financing-ISIL-terrorism trope promoted since 2014 by the US Department of State: 
"Around 100,000 cultural objects of global importance, including 4,500 archaeological sites, nine of which are included in the World Heritage List of ... UNESCO, are under the control of the Islamic State ... in Syria and Iraq," The profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at U.S. $150-200 million per year," he said.
The ambassador claims these plundered antiquities were largely smuggled through Turkish territory. This is part of Moscow's ongoing war of words with Turkey and follows on from the repeated claims that oil smuggled to Turkey by ISIL was a chief form of financing of the group. The letter mentions known elements of the 'antiquities' story:
The smuggling of artifacts, Churkin wrote, is organized by Islamic State's antiquities division in the group's equivalent of a ministry for natural resources. Only those who have a permit with a stamp from this division are permitted to excavate, remove and transport antiquities.
This is the staple stuff of the traditional US-led narrative. Charbonneau suggests that "many details in Churkin's letter appeared new". For her this includes the idea that artefacts are travelling across a porous Turkish border (not at all a new idea, journalists the other side of the border have been writing about if for several years - see my 'Map of Smuggling-Related Places' 17th Feb 2016)
"The main center for the smuggling of cultural heritage items is the Turkish city of Gaziantep, where the stolen goods are sold at illegal auctions and then through a network of antique shops and at the local market," [...] Churkin said jewelry, coins and other looted items are brought to the Turkish cities of Izmir, Mersin and Antalya, where criminal groups produce fake documents on their origin. "The antiquities are then offered to collectors from various countries, generally through Internet auction sites such as eBay and specialized online stores," he said. Churkin named several other Internet auction sites that he said sold antiquities plundered by Islamic State. "Recently ISIL has been exploiting the potential of social media more and more frequently so as to cut out the middleman and sell artifacts directly to buyers," he said
Those "other" sites quoted by Ambassador Churkin in a United Nations official document as being involved in this trade in illicit items with false documentation included:,,, and So far, I have not seen their reaction to this accusation.

Where the Russian ambassador got all this information from is far from clear. Perhaps for example this is based on the work of an (otherwise unknown) Russian research group like the ASOR one. Or perhaps the Ambassador's people have been skimming heritage blogs to put together this letter. I rather think the latter is the case, this seems to be an ad hoc compilation, considering that he says that "Within ISIL, the smuggling of artefacts is organized by the antiquities division (commander: Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi)", not actually noticing that said Abu Sayyaf has been dead (killed in a US raid) since last May. He mentions Akçakale/ تل أبيض‎ / Tal Abyaḍ as a major border crossing for ISIL, but since the June offensive, the border has been not between Turkey and ISIL, but Turkey and Kurdish-held territory. The letter therefore in several places clearly recycles old information presented as new details.

Neither is the context of the letter itself clear. The figure 150-200mln seems taken from thin air (unless the infamous Mosul memory sticks are the 'source'). The naming of three popular SW Turkish holiday destinations (for Russian tourists too) as the main markets could be just guesswork.  EBay of course denies any knowledge of "any allegations that it was being used to sell plundered items" - hmm, read that again. But then if a seller rolls up with documents saying the stuff is kosher, then eBay really has absolutely zero interest in the actual authenticity of the documents (just as much as it is loathe to take any real interest in fake antiquities being sold as real ones). Ambassador Churkin's suggestion that collectors (and dealers?) are now buying directly from ISIL sellers however is a potentially damaging one that perhaps the trade might be prompted to take seriously and show instead where the stuff they have on offer actually comes from (will they? Nah)

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