Tuesday 11 September 2012

Syrian Looting "Worst-Case Scenario": ICOM

It is now estimated that between 23,000 and 26,000 have been killed in Syria in the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime and its bloody crackdown, and many tens of thousands have fled the country to Jordan. It seems looting of artefacts is also rife, and being used to finance the 18 month conflict. Julien Anfruns, director general of ICOM, said that "right now we are pretty much in the worst-case scenario in Syria" for looting and the destruction of ancient sites. Interestingly, this article is trying to build a case that it is the Syrian government which is behind this looting:
Anfruns said it was possible the regime was selling artifacts to raise money, but stressed he did not have evidence that this was happening. "It's a situation that we have seen in some other places. It's definitely a possibility that we do not exclude," he said. "Illicit traffic of art is a significant trade in the world – some of the valuations put that at between $6 billion and $7 billion every year," he said. "It's clear that Syrian antiquities are interesting for some parties. We really, really strongly advise any buyers to be extremely prudent … it's a serious legal matter and due diligence is even more necessary in the current case." Anfruns said there were laws in Syria designed to protect its cultural heritage and even buying artifacts sold by the Assad regime could fall foul of the law. It would also depend on the laws of the buyer's country. "Honestly, in the current situation of conflict and looting and destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, everything that would be on the market will be of a suspicious origin," he said. 
Noah Charney, founding director of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, is quoted as saying that "stolen art had been used by dictatorial regimes to raise money for generations".
Charney said the Taliban had a track-record of breaking into tombs in Afghanistan, "destroying a huge amount and taking the rest of it to sell." And he pointed to a report in the Germany news magazine Der Spiegal that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had tried to sell numerous pieces of stolen art to an art professor in Germany in order to buy an airplane. The Nazi regime had also stolen "lots of art – not just from Jews" which was then sold to collectors often in the U.S. and U.K. before World War II. "The idea of looting your own cultural heritage to fund a hostile or aggressive regime has a very rich history," he said.
There we have a range of Hollywood Black Characters, "the Taliban", the "9/11 highjackers" and the NAZIs. Dr Charney forgot to mention colonialist powers, such as the British who sold off Benin art looted from the Punitive raid for example. Then, bringing it closer to home, the Bolsheviks who sold art to American Museums. I think we are seeing here a disturbing trend where one-sided accusations of cultural destruction are being used by spin-doctors to whip up public outrage against a particular entity such as the Assad regime. We should be careful assessing such reports and recognize their underlying purpose and bias. This is not the way concern about cultural heritage should be used or manipulated. [Also let us not forget that selling off "surplus" artefacts is a method which US collectors and dealers are expecting from the governments of countries such as Greece and Italy at the moment as a way out of their financial crises.] Anyhow, one piece of specific information (if you can call it that) which is being cited as evidence that this looting is in part state-sanctioned concerns some "clay tablets" taken from one site in the night:
 Mousab Azzawi, chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, told NBC News that ancient clay tablets bearing inscriptions had been taken away in black bags during the night from an archaeological site at Tal Sheikh Hamad in May this year by people apparently working with the consent of Assad's forces. Azzawi said he thought the value of the tablets and other artifacts such as jars, tools and jewelry taken away from the site would be in the millions of dollars, adding "I would expect they are over $100 million." "Now the main question, the big question, is what happened with this, who is looking after them [the tablets]?" he said.  NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports. "One guy – this is not verified by us – but he said … the accents of the people who took the bags were Lebanese. He said they were with beards, which gives a hint it's Hezbollah. They are experts in this illegal trading," Azzawi said. "If they are not sold now on the market to bring extra cash for the dying regime, they may be used later," he added.   But he said if – as he assumed the regime would claim – the artifacts were being taken away to preserve them, he said then this was being done in the "worst way for such a precious heritage." "If they took them to a safe place, why didn't they take them in a reasonable way? These are very fragile." 
 Tall Schech Hamad in NW Syria has a website here. It is a Middle to Late Assyrian site excavated by the Institut für Vorderasiatische Archäolgie of the Frei Universität Berlin. The artefacts are only worth "millions of dollars" (unlikely in fact) if they can get them out of the country and into a market where dealers and then collectors will buy them no-questions-asked. Do we know of any such markets? (rhetorical question).

Ian Johnston, 'Emergency red list' targets Syria's looted treasures', NBC News Sept 10 2012.

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