Sunday, 12 May 2013

Syrian Conflict: Samarkeolog Examines the Trade in Looted Antquities

Samarkeolog (Conflict Antiquities) has an interesting text on: 'Syria/Lebanon: Syrian-Lebanese antiquities-for-arms trade' (May 12th 2013). 
In the past week, two investigations have explored the Syrian antiquities market in Lebanon. One has found material evidence that armed groups are managing to fund their fighting through looting, smuggling and selling antiquities; the other has gathered further testimony from illicit antiquities traders that (at least some of) the armed groups who are selling or bartering antiquities for guns are the Free Syrian Army (FSA). First Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) and George Arbuthnott (@Arbuthnott) reported that Syrians loot Roman treasures to buy guns in the Sunday Times, then Fernande van Tets (@fernandevtets) discussed the Art of Civil War in Foreign Policy; both investigations explored the Syrian antiquities market in Lebanon. Most significantly, Jaber and Arbuthnott’s material evidence has corroborated fighters’, looters’, smugglers’ and dealers’ testimony that regime and/or rebel armed groups’ looted cultural property has made it across the border and onto the illicit antiquities market; the trade in illicit Syrian antiquities is funding the Syrian conflict. And van Tets’ participant testimony affirms that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are funding their struggle for the future of their country by plundering the remains of its past.
In the first part of the article, attention is directed to who blames who, which perhaps in a "various men with guns" scenario is less than helpful (and anyway, it's the collectors who indiscriminately buy the looted artefacts that are to blame isn't it?). There is a mention of the attempts to place part of the blame on foreign governments: "Without providing any evidence, the Assad regime’s Syrian National Commission for UNESCO and its astroturf activists have alleged that the Turkish government ‘is involved in illicit trafficking in Syria’s antiquities....".
The Syrian state antiquities director, Maamoun Abdel-Karim, presents no evidence for the allegation that ‘armed archeological mafia gangs…. from Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq’ conduct ‘most of the looting’. And Farchakh-Bajjaly rightly observes that ‘a lot of the smaller artifacts’ are products of subsistence digging: ‘If you are a starving farmer and you know there are objects in the site next door, you will go dig it up if you get hungry enough.’ Nonetheless, it is plausible that mafias and parastate elements within Lebanon, Iraq and/or Turkey are involved (to some extent). Such antiquities gangs do operate in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere; ‘they have networks and contacts in place and know which doors to knock on when the opportunity arises’. The Turkish ‘deep state’, for example, has a massive (heroin-and-)antiquities trafficking network through which Syrian antiquities could be smuggled and sold immediately and easily. But the Turkish state is locked in battle with the political-criminal-paramilitary network that constitutes the (ultranationalist and anti-democratic) deep state; the deep state has infiltrated the country’s institutions, but the state cannot be held responsible for the terrorist network’s activities.
The second part of Samarkeolog's text contains an interesting discussion of the financial factors involved in the trade, who along the chain is making the most profits and why:
[low prices] at the beginning of the chain (from looters, to smugglers, to unashamedly illicit dealers, through chain-laundering until the antiquities appear clean, to apparently licit dealers and auction houses, to private collectors and cultural institutions primarily in Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Gulf states), wherein there is a spike in antiquities’ value once they appear licit.
[The dealers who sell this stuff indiscriminately will of course protest that there is no 'appear" in it, the goods they sell "are" licit, because "they cannot touch you for it"].  They, I think, have their own ideas of what is "licit", and they differ from those of most of the rest of us (unless you are a collector).

The whole article is well worth a read.

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