Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Mulder on Blood Antiquities

Stephanie Mulder, assistant professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin has an opinion piece in Al Jazeera (11 Nov 2014) on 'The blood antiquities funding ISIL'. It's a strange mixture of insight and 'received wisdom', for example we hear again the hackneyed old "The sale of illegal antiquities is now estimated to be ISIL's second-largest revenue stream after oil" which nobody seems to want to admit to coining now. There is also a considerable overlap between parts of her text and the script of last month's Der Erste report 'Das geplünderte Erbe - Terrorfinanzierung durch deutsche Auktionshäuser' (Film: "Plundered Heritage") and Sam Hardy's Reuters blog piece ('How the West buys ‘conflict antiquities’ from Iraq and Syria (and funds terror)', October 27, 2014). Anyhow, Prof Mulder places the blame for some of the antiqui-nastiness fairly on the shoulders of those who pay for the products of looting and smuggling:
It's politically advantageous to blame ISIL. But it is another barbarism, one that unfolds in the hushed and elegant showrooms of antiquities merchants and auction houses in the Middle East, Europe and the United States, that is the true engine of this commerce. Antiquities trafficking is a booming business in Syria and Iraq, and not only ISIL is to blame. 
She gives a few indicators linking both groups of soldiers among the Syrian government forces (Palmyra, Apamea) and the Free Syrian Army.
Calling groups like ISIL "barbarians" makes for a fine sense of wartime superiority, but asking who they're selling to is less pleasant. For many hand-wringing officials, that market is flourishing uncomfortably close to home.  [...] Collectors who imagine they are saving the artifacts from a worse fate delude themselves: Objects summarily ripped from the ground disappear into private collections and lose their ability to speak as material voices of history, robbed of the context that careful excavation by archaeologists and curation by museums can provide. The collecting pays for the looting. And in this case, it also pays for the killing. Until they can be excavated properly, the safest place for these objects is in the ground. A UN ban on the sale of antiquities will no doubt raise awareness. But the real solution lies in an honest assessment of the true driver of the international antiquities trade: collectors and auction houses, facilitated by lax regulations.
She argues for tightening up the legislation on antiquities on an international scale and creating an international database for monitoring and tracking antiquities:
US officials are paying attention. With aggressive policing, such legislation could stem the tide of these "blood antiquities" at its source: not in the deserts of Syria and Iraq, but in the richly appointed homes of collectors and refined halls of auction houses in Europe, the Middle East and the United States.

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