Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Syrian Antiquities Trade on BBC Radio Four

Seized gold coins, where would
they have ended up?
Simon Cox's 38 minute 'File on Four' radio documentary is on tonight  at eight (GMT) on BBC Radio 4, available afterwards on the BBC iPlayer. There is an accompanying text with videos on the BBC website  (Simon Cox, 'The men who smuggle the loot that funds IS' BBC, 17 February 2015). The material presented demonstrates the thesis that trade in antiquities is a major source of funding for the 'Islamic State' (ISIL). Its publication coincides with the UN Security Council last week outlawing all trade in artefacts from Syria. For the past few weeks, the BBC has been investigating the trade, and taking a look at what we know of the routes from Syria through Turkey and Lebanon to Europe. In the course of this there are interviews with a number of people in Beirut and southern Turkey and also a number of people in the UK (David Gill was also interviewed).

There is an interview with a Beirut-based smuggler ("Mohammed")who moves stuff from the Aleppo region (the situation is complicated here by the area at various times in the past few months being under the control of various factions, including some regions by the Al-Nusra Front/Jabhat al-Nusra, the FSA and also some affiliated to ISIL). Nevertheless when asked who is making the money and controlling the trade in Syria, the reply is revealing:
"IS are the main people doing it. They are the ones in control of this business, they stole from the museums especially in Aleppo," he says. "I know for a fact these militants had connections overseas and they talked ahead of time and they shipped overseas using their connections abroad."
The BBC also contacted a middleman ("Ahmed" based in a town in southern Turkey). Presumably he was put in touch with this man (who he interviewed by Skype) through a Beirut dealer as that is where he seems to have been doing the main footwork for the programme. At the time he was interviewed, "Ahmed" had a pile of artefacts:
statues of animals and human figures, glasses, vases and coins. They were dug up in the last few months. "They come from the east of Syria, from Raqqa, all the areas controlled by ISIS (Islamic State)," he says. Islamic State plays an active part in controlling the trade, he tells me. Anyone wanting to excavate has to get permission from IS inspectors, who monitor the finds and destroying any human figures, which are seen as idolatrous (those Ahmed is showing me have slipped through the net). IS takes 20% as tax. "They tax everything," he says. The main trade is in stoneworks, statues and gold, and it can be extremely lucrative. "I have seen one piece sold for $1.1m," he says. "It was a piece from the year 8500BC." He gently handles each artefact as he brings it closer to the webcam to give me a better view. He has had to pay a sizeable bond to the smugglers to get this material and he doesn't want to lose any of it. The final destination is Western Europe, he says. "Turkish merchants sell it to dealers in Europe. They call them, send pictures... people from Europe come to check the goods and take them away."
[The ninth-millennium BC artefact would be contemporary with the earliest Neolithic sites in the region, rather than any 'classical' civilization]. So which Western European dealers are reportedly supplying themselves with Middle Eastern (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) artefacts and do they then go on sale in boutique galleries or dodgy dingy backstreet under-the-counter stores? Or - since all dealers vehemently deny having ever seen such stuff - is it somehow magicked away to coin fairyland?

In the article there is also some discussion of the antiquities trade in Beirut, with the interviewer visiting a shop, the owner of which agrees ("in ten minutes") to supply looted artefacts, which could be shipped direct to London. Arthur Brand is also interviewed:
"The illicit trade is run as a professional business with with offices and business cards and you can buy antiquities from Lebanon, but also from countries like Syria, Iraq." The link between smugglers and dealers is the dirty secret the art world doesn't want to admit to, he says.
Coin fairies. Back in Beirut, Cox talked to a policeman (Lt Col Nicholas Saad, head of Lebanon's bureau of international theft). He talks of objects being smuggled into Lebanon, including in the goods brough by the stream of refugees fleeing across the border:
Since the conflict in Syria he has noticed a significant increase in the smuggling of looted artefacts, "especially from the Islamic parts, Raqqa (the base) of the Islamic State", he adds. His team has seized hundreds of Syrian artefacts.
As in the case of the situatuion in Turkey, Saad stresses that these objects travel to more distant markets:
there isn't a market for them in Lebanon. "Lebanon is a transit station, it's one of the the doors that goes to Europe. The real money is made in Europe." [...] Most of the seized items are from excavations rather than thefts from museums. The looters target warehouses at ancient sites like Palmyra, a Unesco world heritage site. "The warehouses at archaeological sites have objects they know are not listed or catalogued yet, and they think it could be easier to sell them," he says.
Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of Syria's Department of antiquities in Damascus is angry and frustrated about the inability to prevent the looting of sites in the hands of rebels, in particular in the ISIL held areas.
"IS attack all things just for the money," he says. [...] It's impossible to stop the looting but he is adamant more could be done to crack down on the trade. "We are sure through all the sources a lot of objects go from Syria to Europe, in Switzerland, in Germany, in UK - and Gulf countries like Dubai and Qatar," he says.
It was a common refrain. Everyone from the Lebanese police to Mohammed the smuggler and Ahmed the go-between said the main market was Europe. 

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