Monday, 19 March 2018

It’s Disturbingly Easy to Buy Iraq’s Archeological Treasures

U.S. forces invaded Iraq 15 years ago this week—and left behind a booming trade in looted artifacts (Sigal Samuel, 'It’s Disturbingly Easy to Buy Iraq’s Archeological Treasures' The Atlantic March 19, 2018)
 After the invasion, thousands of [...] artifacts were taken directly out of the ground at archeological sites. In most cases, their whereabouts are unknown. But experts have noticed an uptick in the availability of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts at online retailers since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Now, anyone with broadband and a bit of spare cash can buy one of these artifacts. It’s likely, however, that at least some of the post-2003 internet wealth of Mesopotamian treasures is actually stolen goods. [...] On the website Live Auctioneers, you can find a stone bull for $50, a clay cylinder seal for $150, a terracotta fragment bearing a god on a chariot for $225, and a large terracotta female idol for $400. On another auction site, Trocadero, a lion-shaped stone amulet is on offer for $250. The point is not that these particular artifacts were looted after the U.S. invasion, but that ancient Mesopotamian objects are very easy to buy online. And it’s extremely hard nowadays to know whether the provenance listed by the seller is accurate—and hence, whether the object has been legally sourced. 
The journalist notes (not quite accurately) that 'a UNESCO Convention requires proper certification for objects excavated and exported after 1970', but (which is perfectly true) that 'auction websites generally don’t require sellers to make this certification available upfront to prospective buyers'.
Both these websites, in their terms of use, forbid users from posting false information, but neither responded to requests for clarifications about how this policy is enforced. Live Auctioneers’ terms prohibit law-breaking, but specify that the site has “no control over the quality, safety, or legality of the items advertised” and cannot guarantee “the truth or accuracy of the listings.” Trocadero notes that it “is not in a position to assume any duty or responsibility to veto reproductions or misrepresentations.” 
The article then discusses fake collecting histories intended to hide the real origins of objects on the market. In the current no-questions-asked antiquities market patronised by careless greedy but gullible souls with more money than moral sense, this is still all-too-easy. People claim, for example, that objects were bought by long-dead grandfathers when in the Middle East and it's been sitting unnoticed at home for two generations. Or the old 'property of a Swiss gentleman who bought it in the 1950s’ ploy. As she says: 'No one can prove otherwise, and no one will be any the wiser'.Oya Topçuoğlu, a lecturer at Northwestern University who specializes in Mesopotamian archaeology is quoted:
In her recent study of Live Auctioneers, Topçuoğlu discovered that the majority of the items listed on the site are being sold out of London, which has long been a hub for trade in Mesopotamian artifacts. But, she explained, it’s very hard to prove that any given item was looted from the National Museum of Iraq, partly because many of the items stolen from the museum’s storage facility hadn’t yet been inventoried and numbered. “None of the things I’ve seen on Live Auctioneers—and I’ve looked at approximately 2,000 seals that were offered over the last 10 years—have museum numbers on them,” she said. “But the other thing is, you’re really limited to what the seller puts up on the website as a photograph. You don’t have the option to turn it around and look at it from every imaginable angle.” Iraqi archeologist Abdulameer Al-Hamdani noted that, whereas you might find artifacts selling for $400 online, the properly documented artifacts he encounters tend to sell for closer to $400,000. It’s not that the cheaper ones are counterfeits; alarmingly, they tend to be real. “These Iraqi antiquities are very cheap because people want to get rid of them,” he said. “Maybe because they don’t have documentation for them.”
There is then some discussion of the damage to Iraq’s archeological sites, looted to provide artefacts for the trade.
“It’s mostly the sites in the south that were damaged in the immediate aftermath of the invasion,” said Elizabeth Stone, an archeologist who used high-resolution satellite imagery to compare the damage to sites right before and after the invasion. Her data showed a sudden “massive devastation:” Of 1,457 southern sites examined, 13 percent had already been looted prior to the invasion, by February 2003—but that proportion rose to 41 percent by the end of the year. Sites containing relics of temples and palaces, like Umma and Umm Al-Aqarib, were far removed from governmental oversight, “so lots of people just went off and dug holes,” she said.
One particular site is discussed, and it is interesting to note the information relating to the 'pay locals a fair wage to stop them looting' model of the so-called 'Global Heritage Alliance' and allied US groups:
Al-Hamdani, a member of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, was working at the Nasariyah Museum in the south when the U.S. invaded. One day he showed up at work to find that Marines had taken over the museum as headquarters. After several tense days, he persuaded them to join him in patrolling the nearby archeological sites. The amount of looting was incalculable. “We don’t know how many artifacts have been looted from there—that’s the hidden story,” he told me, before casually adding, “I myself was able to restore almost 30,000 stolen artifacts from the hands of the looters and smugglers, between 2003 and 2006.” He said he did this by working first with American and then with Italian forces, conducting patrols and raids. But if he was able to restore 30,000 artifacts, how many more thousands must have slipped through his fingers? The looting, Al-Hamdani said, was clearly precipitated by the invasion. The war forced archeologists to stop work at their sites and leave behind hundreds of impoverished locals whom they’d trained and employed as excavators. Desperate and out of work, these locals began to earn an income the only way they knew how: by excavating—and selling their finds. Meanwhile, looters spread the word that a religious fatwa had been issued saying that it was permissible to steal and sell non-Islamic antiquities, especially if the money was used to fund an insurrection against the U.S. This was a lie: No such religious ruling had been issued. To combat the fictional fatwa, Al-Hamdani had to go to the revered Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani and convince him to write a real fatwa forbidding looting from archeological sites.

 Al-Hamdani  suggests that since civilization got its start in Mesopotamia, its archaeological heritage represents the origins not only of Iraqis, but of all people.
Wrecking that, he said, amounts to “looting the memory of humankind.” Yet he was optimistic that his native country will eventually get its stolen treasures back. “The international community,” he said, “wants to help Iraq recover the artifacts.” But Topçuoğlu, who has watched what she suspects are looted Iraqi artifacts get scooped up online for a few bucks a pop, said, I really don’t think we’ll be able to find them.”
Part of the reason is that collectors do not tend to keep any documentation about how they came into possession of any portable antiquities they pocket. A change of attitudes among collectors would make all the difference.

Into whose pockets is the money from these sales going?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It is no secret that the vast majority of art dealers worldwide are Jews. It is also no secret that the invasion of Iraq was a Jewish project. There was a lot of pre-planning, including getting a Jewish assistant professor at an obscure college to write Iraq's constitution-to-be that was then imposed by pro-consul Bremer. It was around this time that the gaggle of Jewish art dealers, in association, demanded that Iraq's "retentionist" antiquities law be changed. And so it was. It was not an oversight that the invading forces left the museum ungusrded. What a clever, resourceful tribe! Mazel tov! If you wish to research this cleverness, the key word is "retentionist".

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