Trade in conflict antiquities – stealing the ‘stuff that dreams are made of’

The iconic film starring Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon, deals with 1940s-era treasure-hunters seeking a jewel-encrusted gold statuette plundered by pirates in 1539 while it was being shipped from Malta to the Spanish court of King Charles V. Sam Spade, the fictional detective portrayed in the film by Bogart, finally recovers the namesake bird in the closing minutes of this movie, but during the 98 minutes that precede the climax, we learn that the elusive golden bird has, over the centuries, been enameled with black paint and repeatedly traded, stolen and resold by a veritable rogues’ gallery of murderous thieves, sleazy middlemen, disreputable art dealers and unprincipled museum curators and private collectors.

The movie is, of course, two hours of Hollywood entertainment concocted by an imaginative screenwriter. But it wasn’t long after The Maltese Falcon was released that world leaders realized the heritage of many cultures around the world – plundered and repeatedly resold like Bogart’s fictional “black bird” – might be lost forever unless a better effort was made to stem the systematic theft of art and ancient antiquities.

“The so-called ‘business model’ for the illicit antiquities trade was always driven by economics,” Dr Richard M Leventhal, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center, said in a 2014 lecture, ‘Stealing the Past.’ “In this ‘traditional’ business model, pilferage of ancient antiquities started in the field, usually done by local people in need of money. These people, in turn, sold the artifacts to local agents and traders; who then sold the artifacts to international traders; who passed them along to auction houses, who, in turn, sold them to museums and private collectors.”

In 1993, the “traditional” business model described by Dr Leventhal was upended after the US invaded Iraq and unrest subsequently swept the region. The revised model included a new player: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Dr Brian Rose, professor of archaeology at Pennsylvania, tells TRENDS: “ISIS uses the sale of antiquities as one of their money-making operations. In areas of Syria and Iraq controlled by ISIS, a looter has to get their permission to loot a site; a percentage of the sale would then go back to ISIS.”

People are also using stolen antiquities to buy their way out of Middle East war zones: Dr Samuel Hardy, an honorary research associate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, has observed that refugees attempting to flee Syria and Iraq are now paying their way to freedom with artifacts plundered from archaeological sites.

“Some refugees engage in ‘subsistence smuggling’ or ‘subsistence trafficking’ to seek asylum from crisis and conflict,” Hardy notes in his online blog, “Some people are also forced to engage in subsistence digging to survive within zones of crisis and conflict.”

Hardy, a frequent traveler to Syria, has observed that – in addition to organized criminals (“the archaeomafias”) – “just about everybody is actively involved with or facilitating the illicit trade of Syrian antiquities: Assadist forces, fighters with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), ‘secularist democratic’ militias, Islamist/jihadist militias and foreign militaries.”

The world takes notice

In civilized societies, the investigation and recovery of stolen artwork usually only requires a local police department. But during the waning days of World War II, more rigorous and far-reaching enforcement measures were needed to stop the retreating German army from plundering Europe’s greatest museums and private art collections. Hoping to stem the Nazi pillage, the US Army created the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program (a military unit famously celebrated in the 2014 George Clooney-Matt Damon starrer, Monuments Men). These Army teams successfully tracked down and rescued thousands of stolen cultural and artistic treasures before the occupiers could deliver the booty to Berlin.

In 1947, the International Police Organization (INTERPOL) saw the need to expand the work of the “monuments men” when it announced that it was taking on the mission of tracking and recovering stolen artwork. Starting in the early 1970s, INTERPOL created a biannual, photo-illustrated roster of purloined artworks. The images that appeared twice-yearly in “INTERPOL’s Most Wanted Works of Art” was like a master-class in paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures and antiquities: works by Rubens, Gainsborough, Monet, Rembrandt, Pissarro and Vermeer have all gained places on this list.

“We have recovered priceless works of art 30 years from the time the thefts were originally publicized,” Ronald K Nobel, INTERPOL’s Secretary General, said in an address at a 2003 conference, ‘Cultural Property Looting in Iraq’, in Lyons, France. “It is important that traders in stolen work of art or antiquity [should] never be able to sleep comfortably thinking that INTERPOL has forgotten.”

In 1972, the United Nations decided it was finally time to join the battle against culture thieves: the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially sought protection for dozens of “culturally and physically significant places” by designating them “World Heritage Sites.” These were places that possessed “outstanding universal value” and, by preserving them, “UNESCO will ensure that future generations may enjoy them as we do now.”

As of today, 1052 sites have received this designation. In the Middle East and North Africa, there are 81 World Heritage Sites, including Djémila, a former Roman town in the mountains of northern Algeria; the ancient city of Thebes at Luxor, Egypt; the former Parthian and Roman city of Ninawa in Iraq; the former Nabataean city of Petra, Jordan; the Roman-era archaeological site of Leptis Magna in Khoms, Libya; and the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou, a pre-Saharan habitat in Drâa-Tafilalet, Morocco.

How much does it earn?

There is no question a massive amount of pillaging is taking place at unprotected archaeological sites throughout the Middle East. Records reveal a frenzy of looting at just one ancient Iraqi city, Umm al-Aqarib, in the weeks just after the US invasion. Since 2003, equally frantic digging has been underway at thousands of other culturally significant sites throughout the region. It is estimated that a half-million ancient objects have been unearthed illegally from these sites.

Applying a monetary value to all of this plunder is not as simple as counting the number of digger’s holes in a pair of “before and after” photographs. In 2014, shortly after it was learned that ISIS was using the illicit sale of antiquities as a revenue stream, the US State Department estimated the organization was “earning $7 billion a year” selling conflict antiquities. However, analysis by Ben Taub, a reporter for The New Yorker, determined that ISIS’ earnings for the sale of Syrian antiquities in 2014 only amounted to $530,000. “A notable sum,” Taub writes, “but hardly a drop in the billion dollars that ISIS amassed last year, according to [US] State Department estimates.”

According to Fiona Rose-Greenland, a Washington Post reporter, the State Department finally revised its estimates downward after a team of researchers from the University of Chicago determined that ISIS “is likely to have only earned several million dollars in profit since launching its looting program.” The Department’s revised estimate of the Islamic State’s annual earnings: $4 million.

Patchy data and methodological challenges do not fully explain why $7 billion fell to $4 million in public discussions about the ISIS’ antiquities trade.

Rose-Greenland wrote: “What’s really going on here, I think, can be explained in two ways. First, there is an overactive collective imagination about how much art is actually worth. It’s an understandable proclivity. We hear all the time about astronomical prices paid at auction for contemporary artworks or rare masterpieces. Moreover, antiquities are imbued with mystique. They are treasure, hidden away in the ancient soil and waiting to be rediscovered. This, in turn, motivates governments and other groups opposed to the Islamic State to describe their actions in attention-grabbing terms. It’s a lot easier to call for action against a $7 billion crime than a $4 million one.”

Whether illegal plunder is sold for pennies or millions of dollars, all of it eventually makes it way to eager buyers. According to experts, the best customers for pilfered antiquities are Iranians (who have cultural roots in Syria, Iraq, and other conflict zones), Turks, Western Europeans, Americans and Qataris. Of the Qataris, Hardy writes: “The Qatari monarchy/state are the most important buyers of art in the market today (and the elite include collectors, too); there is clearly huge consumer demand [in Qatar] for art and antiquities.”

Dr Neil Brodie, a senior research fellow at the Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project at the University of Oxford, notes in his controversial 2012 study, Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and the Antiquities Trade, that much more than half of the antiquities handled by dealers and auctions houses since 1970 had a legally required “provenance” (a record of ownership used as a guide to an object’s authenticity or quality) that contained scant information. A typical provenance might read: “Red ceramic figure, Persian era (c. 500 BC), possibly found in Syria.”

The world takes action

At the start of the new millennium, the public became better-informed about the illicit art market when it learned about several well-publicized court cases where American art museums like the New York Metropolitan Museum and the Getty in Los Angeles were ordered to return plunder to their rightful owners or countries of origin. Additionally, the media routinely reported instances of artworks and Middle East antiquities being abruptly withdrawn from auctions at Christie’s, Bonhams and Sotheby’s when it was discovered that these items had been acquired illegally. Meanwhile, reports trickling out of conflicts zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and South Sudan told of precious historic treasures being systematically looted or destroyed.

By February 2015, the unchecked plunder at archaeological sites in Syria finally prodded the UN Security Council into action: it adopted Resolution 2199, condemning the destruction of the cultural heritage in Syria, “particularly by the terrorist organizations Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusrah Front (ANF).” Archaeological or ethnological material targeted by Resolution 2199 include stone, metal, ceramic, clay and faience [tin-glazed ceramic]; wood; glass; ivory, bone, and shell; plaster and stucco; textile; parchment, paper, and leather; painting and drawing; mosaic; and writing.

It was a huge step for global authorities to enact stricter customs regulations and international conventions against the sale of antiquities. However, enforcing these laws proved to be a greater challenge. Logically, the job of enforcing a global measure like UN Resolution 2199 should fall to an organization such as INTERPOL. But when TRENDS spoke to an INTERPOL official working at the US Department of Justice, she admitted: “We really only take an interest in illicitly trade artifacts brought into the US that are on the INTERPOL ‘most wanted list’… It’s really up to individual governments to decide how to control their borders.”

Enforcement of US customs regulations is a mission of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). An ICE spokesman, Brendan Raedy, tells TRENDS that, each year, US customs officials examine tens of thousands of paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures and antiquities passing through 327 ports of entry and 136 border stations. Raedy acknowledges that ICE agents lack the kind of training necessary to immediately recognize an antiquity that might have been plundered from a conflict zone. For that, ICE inspectors operating at ports of entry along the US Eastern Seaboard rely on occasional training offered by the staff of the National Geographic Society (NGS) in Washington, DC.

“When I train ICE agents, I try to make them aware that antiquities that have been illegally removed from a global hotspot are the cultural heritage of a country,” says Dr Fredrik Heibert, an archaeology fellow at NGS. “I also show them the types of objects that, depending on current trends, they are likely to encounter.”