Wednesday 29 October 2014

'Conflict Antiquities' in Syria and Iraq: How Much for it to be "OK" for dealers?

"Significant questions remain,
and continue to be raised on
Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage
, but they query confusing
evidence of  a complicated  problem,
not the
existence of a problem". 

Over the past few years several of us have been discussing the use of the sales of so-called 'conflict antiquities'  to raise money to finance armed conflict in Iraq and now Syria and suggesting something needs to be done to investigate this and put a STOP to it. By and large the people that could do that, antiquities dealers, buyers and collectors, have ignored such questions and dismissed them as irrelevant. In the past few weeks however there has been an interesting shift in attitudes. The topic has suddenly become a 'hot' one with the increase in attention in the public domain on one militant group which seems to be using sale of illicit antiquities as part of its fundraising. Suddenly the dealers find themselves at a disadvantage, public attention is on the no-questions-asked trade and its links with nastier things.

The new lobby group, the ADCAEA has varied in its approach. First they tried to ignore the issue, then dismiss it (suggesting that the militant groups were "destroying" all art and not selling it off ) and are now trying to pretend antiquities sales are in some way an "urban legend" in the making. Sam Hardy has been at the forefront of examination of the claims and counterclaims and has a well-argued piece today for those who are inclined to pay any attention to the latter sort of argument. In particular he takes issue with one of the less-observant posts ("The making of an urban legend") of the ADCAEA and ACCG/PNG/IAPN lobbyist Peter Tompa . Tompa constructs a straw man argument that the claim from an old Guardian news item that "the Islamic State has made $36m from the illicit trade in Syrian antiquities" being  "one of the main justifications for the purported need for “emergency import restrictions” on Syrian artifacts" - then contesting the $36m, apparently assuming that by doing so, he has disproven the whole alleged "myth". Tompa fails to note that several commentators, including Sam Hardy, Donna Yates and myself, have already and repeatedly questioned the veracity (as reported) of that initial statement almost from the day it was published (15th June 2014). He also seems unaware that the day following the original article, a story was published which makes it clearer what was being asserted (Ian Black, Rania Abouzeid, Mark Tran, Shiraz Maher, Roger Tooth and Martin Chulov 'The terrifying rise of Isis: $2bn in loot, online killings and an army on the run', The Guardian, Monday 16 June 2014 - see my discussion here).  In any case, as Dr Hardy points out:
"Whether or not the Islamic State has made thirty-six million dollars, whether or not the Islamic State even exists, makes no difference whatsoever. But obliteration of communities’ pasts and funding of organised crime are also justifications for general trading controls"
Mr Tompa will have to try harder than that and address all manner of other material before so lightly dismissing what we are hearing from people on the ground. The reader can refer to Sam's excellent piece refuting Tompa  for the details is they think it worth the bother of to pay any heed at all to what dealers' lobbyists say.

I'd draw attention here to two other points made by Dr Hardy. He stresses that despite the concentration of the western media on demonization of one particular group to emerge from the post-2003 rubble of Iraq all parties ("apart from, perhaps, the Kurds") are profiting from illicit antiquities.
The Islamic State’s illicit antiquities income is somewhat more troublesome than other armed groups’ cultural racketeering, because the Islamic State is committing genocide. [...] the ‘extremist group known as ISIS is one of a number of actors turning antiquities into guns pointed at Syria’s own people.’ 
The other point is a parallel to our refrain about the Heritage action Artefact erosion Counter, every metal detectorist in the UK will tell you - never adducing a scrap of meaningful evidence to say why - that it is "wrong" (suggesting: "it is a lie"). My response to that is to ask by how much it would have to be 'wrong' from the situation to be acceptable. There has never been an answer to that question. Hardy asks the same about Near Eastern antiquities:
as I’ve asked before, would collectors and dealers be reassured if the Islamic State taxed illicit sales rather than sold illicit antiquities, or if illicit purchases had funded the Assad regime rather than the Islamic State? [....]  I explicitly stated in the Reuters piece that how much material had been looted was not known, and how much profit had been made by paramilitaries was not known. But a lot has been looted and a lot of money has been made. How much would need to be looted, and how much money would have to be made by which paramilitaries, for the Cultural Property Observer to accept the genuine need for antiquities import restrictions? 
I suspect that is another question that will remain unanswered. 

Vignette: ISIL on the march

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