Monday 27 October 2014

How the West buys ‘conflict antiquities’ from Iraq and Syria (and funds terror)

Sam Hardy has a very important piece in Reuters blog ('How the West buys ‘conflict antiquities’ from Iraq and Syria (and funds terror)', October 27, 2014) building on comments in the  Das Erste report a few days ago. Smuggling is booming in Iraq and Syria right now and despite denials from the antiquities trade and the ambiguities of the evidence and some reports as Sam says, the sale of conflict antiquities to fund military and paramilitary activity is real and systematic.  Sam lists a few examples which make the point,
Grainy video from soldiers fighting for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime at Palmyra, an ancient capital in what is now Syria, shows delicate grave reliefs of the dead, ripped out, gathered up and loaded into the back of their truck. The soldiers present the heads of decapitated statues to the camera. Other stolen Palmyrene treasures were exposed by an undercover reporter for The Sunday Times. Sculptures, pillar carvings and glass vessels were found to be on sale for knock-down prices in Beirut, Lebanon. Roman vases had been robbed from graves and were being sold by the box. Across the disintegrating border, every party to the conflict is party to the plunder. Beyond Palmyra, the ancient city of Aleppo and hundreds of other sites in Syria have been looted by one armed group or another.
Smuggler Abu Khaled told Time that the Assad regime was selling antiquities to pay its henchmen. Senior Free Syrian Army fighters told the Washington Post that looting antiquities was “a vital source of funding.” Another smuggler told Le Temps that Islamist fighters take control of trafficking when gaining territory. How much — and even what — has been bought and sold isn’t known for sure, but entire sites are being lost.
What I think is important here is that instead of demonising one particular group, Sam is stressing that there is not a single actor here, but the money is going into the pockets of different groups (including Assad's forces). The lobbyists for the antiquities market are united in stubborn denial of any involvement, he quotes Kate Fitz Gibbon saying there is “no credible evidence that looted art is coming from Syria to [the] U.S.” and that, rather, it is flowing “unchecked to Turkey, the Gulf States and other nearby nations”. I'd like to see her evidence for that and the scale. 
Still, experts have shown a 145 percent increase in American imports of Syrian cultural property and a 61 percent increase in American imports of Iraqi cultural property between 2011 and 2013, which suggests that the illicit trade is reaching American consumers by ‘piggybacking’ on the legal trade. Furthermore, archaeologists Jesse Casana, Mitra Panahipour and Michael Danti have found evidence that looters are specifically targeting Classical antiquities in order to supply what is mostly a Western demand for Greek and Roman art. An investigative report by the German broadcaster NDR documented evidence that antiquities looted by terrorist groups were being sold through German auction houses. The report revealed how Syrian conflict antiquities were smuggled as handicrafts, laundered with obscuring or outright false documentation, and then sold on the open market. It also exposed the transfer of antiquities to Gulf States, where they were laundered for resale in Western markets.
These items will, Dr Hardy concludes, "end up as art divorced from its culture – some in unscrupulous museums that hope they have been laundered just enough to appear clean, many more displayed as talking pieces in the homes of the wealthy or secreted away in private collections". Sam suggests that "we must not be misled by antiquities collecting lobbyists’ insinuation that Syria or Iraq’s antiquities are better smuggled than burned by the various groups of militants – the smuggling pays for the burning".

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