Saturday 9 May 2015

Lebanon wages war on antiquities smuggling

UNESCO has launched a 'Unite4Heritage' campaign in Lebanon, a drive to help protect cultural heritage in the region from looting and destruction by violent extremist groups (
Driven by the use of social media by extremist groups to promote the destruction of irreplaceable landmarks, UNESCO has chosen to respond in kind. The international campaign aims to develop youth awareness about the safeguarding of heritage, encouraging people to “take a photo of your favorite heritage site or artifact and tell us why it is important to you,” then post the picture on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with the #Unite4Heritage hashtag. 
Lebanon is one of the countries through which smuggled antiquities are trafficked on their way to markets in Europe or the United States The initiative is also intended to raise awareness of the activities of the organized smuggling outfits involved in this illicit and damaging trade. 
Lt. Col. Nicholas Saad, head of Lebanon’s Bureau of International Theft, told The Daily Star in March that Lebanon and Turkey remain the most favored routes for smugglers hoping to export objects from Syria and Iraq to Europe or the U.S., adding that in four years police have seized over 1,000 objects, despite having only a one in 10 chance of intercepting smuggled items, which are often secreted in the belongings of refugees entering the country. Local authorities have also intercepted much larger items since the onset of the Syrian war.
There are difficulties inspecting everything that enters or leaves any country, Anne Marie Afeiche, curator of the National Museum of Beirut told the Daily Star: 
“Customs systematically stop all the boxes or parcels they find leaving the Lebanese territory, either from the port or the airport, or even coming inside the Lebanese territory from the land frontier. ... I would say that it’s maybe only one part that we are seeing, actually. There is a lot more that we don’t know about.”

Culture Minister Raymond Areiji told The Daily Star that in mid-2013
a file was sent to his office every week or two from customs with details of items suspected to be looted from heritage sites. In recent months, however, he said that the frequency of incidents had decreased [...] “We didn’t notice in Lebanon any increase in this kind of smuggling but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” the minister said. “But our security forces and customs haven’t seized any tangible artifacts [in the past few months]. I think it’s easier for [smugglers] to take them out of Syria or Iraq from other countries, because in Lebanon now, due to the security issues, the borders are very well watched.”
Areiji calls the groups involved in such trade an international mafia, with foreign dealers at the other end of the chain facilitating the sales. He told The Daily Star that:
“All countries should be very aware [...] and they should, in my opinion, organize a campaign of awareness to the population, saying ‘If you buy this kind of artifacts you are participating in the financing of these groups and you are participating in the stealing of others’ heritage.’”
This is actually what the 1970 UNESCO Convention stipulates. How many state parties actually have a government-run campaign doing this? The UK and US most certainly do not. The UK has the PAS encouraging private collecting even.

Even objects known to be fakes are being held [...] “We have a lot of difficulties with fakes, because especially in Syria they are very good at that,” Afeiche explained. “They have workshops making fakes, and they know the original pieces. ... The fakes [used to be] given back [to the owners] and only the originals kept in our store rooms. Sometimes we are not sure ... so lately we keep everything.” 
Muscarella's 'The Lie Became Great' warns of this. The antiquities market which has never insisted on documentation 'grounding' the artefacts it deals with has been responsible for the rise of a lot of material which actually falsifies history. That is aside from those artefacts freshly surfacing from destructive digging which are produced from the outright destruction of huge areas of the historical record. All so some smug suburban guy with a disposable income can fondle their very own "pieces of the past", taken from those in conflict zones whose lives are far less comfortable and carefree. Shame on them.

Daily Star, 'Lebanon wages war on antiquities smuggling', May 8th 2015.

Vignette: Lebanon

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