Sunday 31 August 2014

More on Isil Looting, but What's Really Going on?

Sam Hardy has another incisive piece looking at the new stories on ISIL and the antiquities trade ('Are ‘unheard of numbers’ of cultural goods from Syria and Iraq making their way into auction houses in the UK?' Conflict Antiquities August 31, 2014). This time he's looking at Buzzfeed's Buzzfeed's Middle East Correspondent Sheera Frenkel's text 'How ISIS became the richest terrorist (sic) organization in the world'. The article contains references to what Sam labels 'unimaginable claims, contradictory evidence'. The first concerns the claim by the Guardian's Martin Chulov that evidence had been uncovered that through antiquity sales from one province alone ISIL had generated $36 million. Sam considers this information to be false and I am inclined to agree that he has a good point. The article also contained an estimated of the overall value of conflict antiquities ascribed to UNESCO, but Sam shows this was Frenkel's misreporting and
"that estimate is uselessly out-of-date and possibly entirely unevidenced [...] it’s a figure from a single twenty-four-year-old newspaper report, which hasn’t even been adjusted for inflation, let alone corroborated with evidence. UNESCO should not be recycling decades-old media guesstimates".
The most astounding claim Frenkel made however is that she talked with an archaeologist with a foot in the preservationist camp but working with rich collectors:
Archeologists trying to explain the extent to which ISIS has looted archaeological sites often rely on Google Earth to make their point. Zooming over areas of northern Syria and western Iraq currently held by ISIS, one British archaeologist told BuzzFeed, “What’s happened here is historical devastation.” “We are talking about areas that were part of the cradle of civilization being pillaged, artifacts going back thousands of years that should be studied in museums are instead disappearing to the black market,” said the British archaeologist, who works as part of a team that tries to verify whether antiquities reaching London are legally sourced. He asked not to be named as he did not want to expose his wealthy clients who guard their privacy. “We are also seeing unheard of numbers of stolen goods making their way into auction houses which are considered reputable.”
Sam discusses this quote, but this sounds like an apocryphal source to me. If this guy is so concerned about holes dug in Syrian sites, by what logic is he collaborating with collectors at all? Where is there a "team that tries to verify whether antiquities reaching London are legally sourced for wealthy clients?" Who employs him, does he work for one of the major auction houses? Finally, is it a lack of literacy or linguistic skills that prevents rich clients in London themselves asking a supplier to show the documentation of legal origins before they buy?

The whole reasoning behind not giving the informant's name is dubious. In what way would Sheera Frenkel, by saying "Tom Diggalot, a British archaeologists who can use Google Earth..." "expose his wealthy clients who guard their privacy?" That's just nonsense.

I suspect the improbable Tom Diggalot does not in fact exist. Another sock-puppet. In which case there would be nobody actually behind that claim that "we" (who?) "are also seeing unheard of numbers of stolen goods making their way into auction houses which are considered reputable". What actually is that supposed to mean? I cannot imagine anyone who actually knows the market making that claim in such words. As Sam says (and despite what supporters will claim - hi Kyri), we are still seeing more or less the same number of items in those 'auction houses of repute' with pretty skimpy and unsupported collecting histories. That is grounds for concern, and they may, or may not, be looted, but that is no justification for making the claim that they represent "unheard of numbers of stolen goods". Anyone who has some ideas about what went on in the antiquities market in the past would be unlikely to suggest that any modern figure is 'unheard of'. I'd say this was hyperbole and nothing else. Sam takes the point to its logical conclusion:
Frenkel’s sources avoided the problem of false evidence by simply providing no evidence at all [...] Are archaeological consultants reporting ‘unheard of numbers’ of illicit antiquities to the police? Are these archaeologists reporting their discoveries to the police? If so, where are the ‘unheard of numbers’ of withdrawals of objects from auctions? Where are the ‘unheard of numbers’ of prosecutions of illicit possessors, handlers, dealers and buyers? If not, is it because their employers require them not to share their evidence, or because they themselves do not consider it their duty as professionals and as citizens?
I suppose if they really do work for collectors or dealers, that might be a bit of a hindrance in their career development.

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