Cristina Ruiz, What do we really know about Islamic State’s role in illicit antiquities trade? The Art Newspaper, 1 March 2016
How are stolen antiquities being smuggled out of Syria? How much does Islamic State (Isis) profit from this illegal trade? Can we do anything to stop it? These were some of the questions broached by investigators and scholars at a symposium on art and terrorism co-organised by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (Arca) held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London last Saturday, 27 February.
Mike Giglio, an investigative journalist with Buzzfeed who spends much of his time reporting from Turkey’s 560-mile border along Syria, has witnessed firsthand the steady stream of objects smuggled out of the war-torn country. The border is long, porous and difficult to control, Giglio said, and some guards are involved in the trade. But he warned against demonising the people who dig for artefacts in Syria and then smuggle them out. “It’s a sign of the desperation of the people affected by the conflict… they see artefacts buried in the ground as their ticket out of their current hell.”
Giglio has seen major pieces pass through the border such as a Roman mosaic removed from the floor of an ancient villa and taken out of the country rolled up in a carpet. On another occasion, a source showed Giglio photographs of several Roman portrait bust sculptures from Palmyra. However major objects such as these are the exception. “Some of my contacts have sold things for a few hundred dollars, or even a few thousand dollars, but what really drives this business are the really small transactions which take place constantly rather than the big-ticket items,” Giglio said, adding that many of the objects coming out of Syria are fake.