Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Looted Middle Eastern Art

Syrian citizens ride their bicycles in Palmyra in March. Authorities in Lebanon say they have seized many looted items from Syria, including 24 statues from Palmyr © Joseph Eid. Source: The Art Newspaper.

Robert Jenrick, ‘No one group has done more to put our heritage at risk than Islamic State’, The Art Newspaper, 28 January 2015

International cooperation is key to shrinking the market for looted art from the Middle East.

We live in a time of the most tragic and outrageous assault on our shared heritage that any of us have seen since the end of the Second World War. Ancient treasures in Iraq and Syria have become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting. And no one group has done more to put our heritage at risk than Islamic State (IS) who are not only taking lives, but tearing at the fabric of civilisation, looting and purposefully destroying the culture and collective memory of millions. And unlike some previous assaults, IS are not concealing their destruction of mosques and churches and crusader castles, they are doing so brazenly with bulldozers and bombs, available for all to see in heart-breaking “before” and “after” satellite images and shared with pride on Twitter.

This is not a cultural crime to be revealed once the fog of war has cleared, this is a 21st-century crime being conducted purposefully, in full view and on social media. 

Some of the looted or destroyed sites, from Apamea and Dura Europos to the Unesco heritage city of Aleppo and the Tomb of Jonah are well known throughout the world, but IS now controls more than 4,000 places of historic and archaeological interest—some are already lost, others like the Mosul museum hang in the balance, at the mercy of terrorists. IS want to rob future generations of any connection to the rich past of this region, denying religious and cultural ties that bind and will form part of the reconciliation to come.

But it gets worse. Through systematic looting, these works of art are funding the murderous activities of IS. Indeed, these activities are now believed to be their third largest source of revenue, after oil and robbing banks. A brave network of informants, today’s “Monuments Men”, give us shocking reports from the ground: IS employing contractors with bulldozers to harvest antiquities on an industrial scale; IS deploying militants to ensure their control sites and “supervise” digging; and licensing looting with a formal “tithe” of around 20%.

The sums involved are difficult to gauge, but likely run into tens of millions of dollars of income for IS and other terrorist groups 

In the United States there has been a 133% increase in imports of Syrian works of art in the past year, some notable works have been discovered by auction houses through their due diligence, there are reports works being offered privately in the Gulf at one end of the scale and appearing on eBay at the other, but overall there hasn’t been a significant uptake in works coming to market so it’s likely that vast quantities of looted materials are being stored by middlemen until “the dust has settled”. That suggests that when these works do come to market, they will do so having passed through many hands, including sophisticated, organised criminals.

Our heritage is at risk and is being used to fund terror and it is imperative that we act now. A group of members of Congress and of the British Parliament, including myself, are urging action and have found support in US Secretary of State John Kerry and UK Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, invoking the legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Monument’s Men” and the successful, multi-lateral campaign to outlaw “Blood Diamonds” with which there are obvious parallels.

So what can government do? The key to fighting the trade in illicit antiquities lies in co-operation. In the UK and the US we are asking for coordinators to be appointed who can establish forums to bring together law enforcement, museum representatives, government and representatives of the art trade.

Read more (may involve paywall).

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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