Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Greed Against an Important Social Good

Dealer with good stuff
More on the impact of the June 23rd  meeting of the Congressional subcommittee on Terrorism and Illicit Finance in the US House of Representatives:
In March of 2001, the Western world was alerted to a new register of conflict within the Middle East that departed from classical conceptions of war. This new register, while not involving the loss of life, carried a similar sense of anguish and despair at the symbolic level where cultural artifacts and history became the target of destruction. Here the Taliban, in a remote corner of Afghanistan, after numerous attempts, destroyed the 1,700-year-old Buddha of Bamiyan statues, standing more than 150ft high, through meticulously placed dynamite charges.
 This is according to: 'Changing Nature of Illicit Art Trading Revealed as US Steps Up Fight', Blouin Artinfo, June 27, 2017. The article goes on to say how the Taliban 'was wholly unapologetic to international outcry and continued to destroy all smaller non-Islamic sculptures belonging to Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, found in its national Museums'. It is argued that this assault on culture was the beginning of a phase when
culture artifacts and cultural heritage came to play a strategic role in the conflicts that cascaded through the region. Cultural artifacts, found in abundance, were viewed by Islamists as both a source of propaganda, where alien histories could be replaced by a true version of Islamic society, and as a source of funding, where looted artifacts could be used to fund local militias in Iraq and more recently ISIS in Syria.
The text then goes on to discuss the connection between looted artifacts and the financing of ISIS (specifically the results of the May 2015 Abu Sayyaf raid in Syria 'when documents were [reportedly] discovered by US special forces in a raid in Northern Syria, showing an active effort by ISIS to incentivize Syrians to unearth artifacts for profit'):
Here ISIS allowed for locals to earn much needed funds by looting ancient cultural sites, in exchange for a 20% tax on the perceived value of the artifact found. Thus the use of artifacts for funding was added to the list of strategic assets used by ISIS within the black market – although the scale of revenues has been shown to be dwarfed by the illicit sale of oil during this period. 
Readers will know that I dispute the authenticity of the documents being shown by the Department of State (which would be, if real, have been seized and retained illegally anyway). The HR meeting received testimony from three experts on the link between the illicit trade of art and antiquities, and terrorism financing, and this revealed
several pertinent points about the changing nature of cultural theft, particularly within combat zones, along with American efforts to protect cultural heritage.
Hmm, the US of course has not been undertaking this task alone, though it is true - as the article points out - that the United States has long been one of the largest markets for art and cultural artefacts – both legitimately sourced and illicit.
The [...]  nature of illicit art trading, according to Brian Daniels (PhD and Research Assoc. at the Smithsonian Institute), had changed in terms of its supply chain. While many looted artifacts from Northern Syria and Iraq were being smuggled into Europe via Turkey or Lebanon – where longstanding smuggling operations existed – increasingly, looted artifacts were being sent to Southeast Asia – Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – before attempted re-entry into art buying markets. Here artifacts could enter a Southeast Asia Freeport such as Singapore, and be warehoused and laundered as a legitimate artifact prior to resale. The destination markets have also changed, where buyers previously concentrated in the US and Western Europe, have now emerged in Russia, China and the Gulf States. To this point Congressional members suggested that the White House, and the Department of Treasury when engaging allies in the region, present this practice of illicit trade, as an action point. However, what this trend seemed to imply was that the problem was becoming more sophisticated and diffuse as conflict had dragged on in the region. Looters were finding new markets, while smugglers were finding new methods of distribution. Although the Committee was looking for key causal data points connecting culture to the defeat of ISIS, it was presented with a more nuanced response to a very challenging problem. What is encouraging however is that since 2001 the US has become more aware of the importance of culture and cultural heritage, and has raised it to the level of an important social good.
That is not of course the way US dealers and their lobbyists see it. For them, the artefacts surfacing clandestinely and anonymously on the international market are not public property belonging to the present and future societies from whom they are taken, but the object of their focus on (and struggle for) 'private ownership rights'. In the struggle to maintain no-questions-asked access to0 all these goods ('both legitimately sourced and illicit' indistinguishably mixed) they employ all sorts of arguments and weasel-worded, self-interest-ridden rhetoric, all of which can be translated into one word, 'greed'.

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