Saturday, 16 April 2016

Syrian Artefacts in London?

Lintel, from Ancient Heritage blog
Channel 4’s Dispatches programme is doing a report on Monday on the London antiquities trade. They sent two academics undercover to pose as collectors and Augusta McMahon (senior lecturer in archaeology at Cambridge), and Alessio Palmisano (University College) wore hidden cameras as they browsed antiques shops.  The episode is being broadcast tomorrow on Channel four (Isis and the Missing Treasures)
Journalist Simon Cox investigates how easy it is for terrorist groups such as Islamic State to exploit the trade in looted antiquities. For the last eight months, he has been undercover examining this lucrative business and testing the laws designed to regulate it, finding a world of dubious provenance and questionable deals in the heart of London and on the internet. He also looks at what Isis doing to the world heritage sites in territory it holds.
According to Robin Henry writing in the Sunday Times (‘Syrian antiquity found on sale for £30,000 in London’ The Sunday Times - 17 April 2016) they found what seems to be a recently-surfaced Syrian artefact in an upmarket antiques shop in Mayfair, central London . This was located in one of the places I examined on my December trip there, but I do not recall spotting this there then. They report that the dealer in Middle Eastern Eastern and Islamic metalwork and manuscripts had on offer an ornate 6ft piece of carved stone probably a lintel, "the academics suspected that it originated from Syria". The original offering price was £50,000, but when McMahon and Palmisano returned several weeks later, the shopkeeper said the "owner of the antiquity had agreed" to drop the price. Of course linking this item with ISIL as the programme-makers apparently wish to do is impossible unless firm evidence appears on which part of Syria it came from and precisely when and how it entered the market - but that is precisely the kind of information the no-questions-asked mode of doing business on the antiquities market is intended to obscure.

UPDATE 20th April 2016
After much fiddling, fussing and checking, I concluded that the Channel 4 streaming video  thingy cannot be accessed from Poland, but from all accounts (David Knell Wednesday, 20 April 2016 'Dispatches and the Missing Evidence'; David Gill Monday, April 18, 2016 'ISIS and The Missing Treasures' see here too) I did not miss much. The broadcasters' own summary can be found here.   Gill notes laconically: "The programme discusses a lintel known to have come from Syria and on offer in London; a manuscript in Copenhagen; and an intercepted consignment". Knell points out that in the case of the lintel from Nawa, removed from Syria sometime after 1988 "Nawa was captured by al-Nusra Front and other rebel factions, most recently in November 2014, and al-Nusra Front had already split from ISIS by the end of 2013. So, were the real culprits al-Nusra Front?". The manuscript is equally difficult to pin to ISIL. Knell summarises his impression:
the documentary failed to track down a single object in the UK that had definitely been looted from Syria or Iraq since civil unrest began in 2011, let alone one that had definitely helped to fund ISIS [...] we are still left wondering why the media is fixated only on ISIS (it is far from being the sole reason for Syria's appalling loss of its heritage both before and during the crisis) and, despite wild claims, just how much money that organisation is really making from the sale of antiquities. And how many of those antiquities are really reaching the UK. Even only one object is one object too many and we must be utterly vigilant but this programme did nothing to dispel the suspicion that the involvement of the UK market in ISIS loot may be greatly exaggerated. 
It is disappointing to find a British TV documentary instead of doing some proper investigative reporting, uncritically jumping onto the US political bandwagon of blaming everything on ISIS and thus feeling compelled to find evidence that the UK is receiving ISIS loot. The fact that such evidence is hard to find does not seem to have worried them in making sensationalist tv. This really is helping nobody I was in that same antiquities mall just four months ago, and it is full of some very interesting material, and a little poking around would have revealed much about the antiquities market's workings.  McMahon and Palmisano walked past a whole load of disturbing things, yet for some reason only this lintel seems to have taken the film-makers' fancy. Why?

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