Thursday 18 December 2014

McAndrew on the Significance of Cold Storage of Misappropriated Syrian and Iraqi Cultural Property

The US take on the rest of the world
is often a strange thing.
James McAndrew (forensic specialist for the law firm Grunfeld, Desiderio, Lebowitz, Silverman and  Klestadt, and board member of the CCP) opines on antiquity looting in Syria and Iraq ('Syria and Iraq’s neighbours can help contain the looting' Art Newspaper, Issue 263, December 2014). He is all for hampering artefact smugglers by "securing the borders of the two war-torn countries". While that in itself is pretty obvious (er, duh), the tone of what he says is ominous:
It is only when the countries neighbouring Syria and Iraq do more to halt the terrible destruction that progress will be made. In short, the Middle East must put its own house in order. While there are many reports that IS, driven by its extremist ideology, is simply destroying archaeological sites, the terrorist organisation also appears to be profiting from the trafficking of moveable objects and numerous reports have emerged suggesting that the objects that survive the destruction are being taken to neighbouring countries and sold locally.
He suggests however that the number of items which have left the region are relatively small, and is inclined to believe that looted items are held in 'cold storage' intended for surfacing later and thus predominantly remain in the region. He draws on his past experience in HSI during and after the two Gulf wars between the US and Iraq when "the only items seized at US ports were a few small parcels of cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets and foundation cones, all easily transportable and of relatively low value".
We never recovered larger hoards of trafficked material such as containers full of high quality Iraqi objects. There simply was no flood of Iraqi artefacts to the West. [...] the diorite statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash [was found in] the southern region of Syria. The statue was being hidden on a farm and had never left the region. During the Second Gulf War, US Customs agents working in Baghdad offered an amnesty to Iraqi citizens for the return of stolen and looted items. This programme was a success, leading to the return of many extremely important artefacts that were either stolen form the Baghdad Museum or looted from neighbouring archaeological sites. Once again, these items were all recovered locally.
McAndrew speculates that the large majority of artefacts looted from Syria [and Iraq?] will "go to the Emirates, Iran, Syria [eh?] and high-net-worth individuals in the Gulf states". Quoting the UNESCO 1970 Convention, he calls upon Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to increase border security, border enforcement, and the discovery and recovery of looted artefacts before they leave the region.
To stop the spread of looted artefacts, action must take place at the borders of Syria and Iraq.[...] It makes sense for an international coalition to proactively encircle Syria and Iraq’s borders to intercept looted artefacts and stem the flow of the heritage of these beleaguered countries.
This looks like a typical piece of US pro-market (anti-regulation) provocation. His thesis seems to be bolstering the position of those that say, instead of regulating the international market (specifically the US and European bits of it) it is the source countries that should be clamped down on ("Punitive measures should also be considered by Unesco* if any one of the countries neighbouring the conflict refuses to assist"). McAndrew totally loses sight of the fact that the whole idea of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and all measures that build on it is to prevent the unregulated movement of cultural property outside the borders of the source country, not to "prevent the spread of looted artefacts [onto the markets]" per se. Far from being a stick with which to force the source country victim of cultural property theft to 'tackle the problem at source', representatives of the US antiquities trade are deliberately turning their backs on its real function which is to encourage international co-operation and solidarity with the pillaged countries and provide effective support and assistance in dealing with the problem in the international sphere. So yes, let us see both increased vigilance both at the borders and beyond.

*UNESCO has of course no such mandate or clout.

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