Tuesday 9 December 2014

"Mr Grebkesh, do you sell Syrian Conflict Antiquities?"

Islamic State Income from Looted Antiquities Grossly OverestimatedWestern media keep portraying IS as an organization that exploits Syrian cultural heritage in order to finance its campaign of terror, but new research published in Die Zeit suggests that this image is largely inaccurate". First of all, there is much discussion in the western media of ISIL funding sources, but only the least serious would be claiming that the whole campaign of terror is financed by antiquity sales. Let us see him cite a few dozen to justify that quantifier "keep". Let him also be more accurate about what the Die Zeit article actually states.  This is part of the deflectionist tendency of the dealers lobbyists, who will focus on one issue, and never mind the rest.

Once again there is complete reliance on negative evidence to clinch the matter:
"in a new investigative article about IS's revenue streams, also published in Die Zeit, the illegal trade of antiquities isn't even mentioned".
There are a lot of things not mentioned in that article, it does not mean they can all be ignored. One of the Die Zeit journalists responsible for the text, Yassin Musharbash, wrote on his blog:

The reason we didn't cover this aspect in our article but rather published a separate piece in this week's edition [...] is simple: We could not find any evidence that the IS is directly involved in the sale of illegal antiquities. We in no way doubt that antiquities are being stolen and sold in Iraq as well as in Syria. But according to what we were able to find out through our sources in the region, the IS does in fact allow criminals to dig out and steal such antiquities in exchange for a fee -- but is not necessarily involved directly in selling. [...] the illegal sale of antiquities is nothing that the IS invented. It has been practiced in Iraq as well as Syria for many years by criminal gangs who engage in forging as well. The fact that about a third of the antiquities confiscated by the Syrian customs authority in recent months were fake speaks to that.
He tellingly uses the same arguments as the dealers in his own country, "we have found no evidence whatsoever of antiquities on the black or grey market whose origin can beyond doubt be traced back to areas that the IS is holding or has been holding [...] we can't prove this happened". But then even a novice looking at this market can see that the vast majority of items (even those openly on sale) have absolutely "no evidence" of exactly where on a map they came from, and through whose hands they passed. that is the whole raison d'etre of the no-questions-asked market. If the market was transparent enough for those parameters to be identified (say) for 87% of the objects of Middle Eastern origin on it then such negative evidence might have some clout, but when the vast bulk of the items is wholly anonymous or has some vague "in an old ... collection" or "with [sic] Grebkesh and Runn earlier" pseudo-provenances, then this information has absolutely zero input to the assessment of this issue. And where did Musharbash get that information, not from "Honest Luke" Grebkesh himself surely? A journalist who "proves" that sexual abuse is not happening in German families merely by asking parents "do you sexually abuse your kids?" is not going to win the Pullitzer.

 The German journalists are right to want to dig deeper and to remain sceptical when the source evidence is so ambiguous. Once again, we should note that the journalist seems to be focussing on "how much?" The focus here is on ISIL rather than Syrian (and Iraqi) conflict antiquities in general. We should be careful not to simply dismiss the whole issue until - as Musharbash suggests:
Perhaps we will know more in a few years when some of the stolen antiquities may, after all, appear on the grey or black market.
By which time of course it will be far too late to react and look deeper into the issue and how to deal with any irregularities and problems we find. All we will be able to do then is exclaim - not really surprised -  "gosh, yes, what a shame the dealers, archaeologists and politicians did not do more to STOP this! What were they thinking?"

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