Smuggled antiquities, from mountain battlegrounds to London shops
Here’s the thing they didn’t tell you on the network news about those ruins in Mosul blown up by ISIS. It’s not crucial, but the dark joke of irony does put things in historical perspective. When Henry Layard—who was something of a real-life Indiana Jones of Victorian times, complete with escapes and daring-do—worked at sites excavating the ruins around Mosul, he had to deal with bandits and thugs who were sure he was looking for treasure. And even a few of his own men rushed off to sell some of the great finds the minute the dirt was brushed away.
The only thing that seems to have changed is the bandits now have a chilling ideology.
Besides black flags and beheadings, ISIS is famous for how its soldiers—each with the sadism of a demented child—bulldozed and smashed antiquities in Mosul. But those that weren’t destroyed for being idolatrous were smuggled out for sale. In nearby Erbil and down in Suleimani, officials who manage antiquities felt sick.
“Butchers,” is how Kamal Rasheed Raheem refers to them. With a leonine head and regal features, the director of Suleimani Antiquities sits at his heavy conference table, which he occasionally slams with his hand for emphasis. When asked about any antiquities smuggled perhaps from Mosul to Erbil, he insists it doesn’t happen; Mosul sits in the Nineveh province while Erbil is the capital of Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous province of Iraq with its own regional government (it even has its own consulate in Washington).
Kurdish authorities insist they are quite diligent when it comes to smuggling. And no one seems to know exactly what, or how much, was taken from Mosul—some museum and antiquities officials are still trapped behind ISIS lines. “They’re hiding themselves, and if they are lucky, they survive.”
In the background, several men—some in traditional Kurdish dress—sit and chat on the plush couch. Apparently it’s de rigueur for museum officials to have a massive office that serves as part café for senior employees and guests, part town hall.
The Iraqi-Kurdish rivalry seems a petty thing when contemplating the pottery and figures of the ancient Assyrians and Akkadians. This region, after all, is a cradle of culture, and Erbil itself goes back to 3000 BCE. But politics are never completely forgotten, especially because Baghdad used to insist on getting the lion’s share of major antiquities. The Kurds might be the best protectors of the region’s legacies. Units of the controversial Kurdish militia known as YPG captured the key supply town near the Turkish-Syrian border, Tal Abyad, in mid-June and about a week later, announced they had captured the town of Ain Issa in Syria, 50 kilometres from the ISIS base of Raqqa.
Meanwhile, as the formal Kurdish Defence Forces, the Peshmerga, try to make sure no ISIS flag ever flies above Erbil’s Citadel, a collection of directorates across Kurdistan concern themselves with the management of the dusty old things that measure civilization. (On the window of a reception booth at one of them, a laser-printed sign admonishes, “Stop the smuggling and destruction of antiquities!”)
“I imagine this is kept quiet”
This should be a big deal to corporations in the West. If a corporate art buyer picks up an impressive chunk of sculpture to display in the lobby, board members will be horrified if they learn nobody checked closely about where that beautiful sandstone came from.
And if the trail can be traced to an act of conflict, that corporation may have a damage control nightmare and reputational risk problem on its hands.
Major insurance companies, or banks, might well ask hard questions of prestigious museums as well, specifically about those art works that suddenly pop up on their asset and inventory lists—whether now or 10 years from now after the headlines are safely “old news” and a museum can herald its “new” acquisition. And if your multinational firm wants to make sense of terrorism and whether its sphere will spread to your next entry market, it’s good to know how terrorism is financed— and how far smuggling networks reach.
It’s relatively easy to go see where the trail begins in Iraq. Mosul is ridiculously close to Erbil; you could drive there in under an hour (before ISIS mined the road with explosives). Today, you have to cover a more circuitous route through craggy mountains to the halfway point between the two cities—right up to an observation post overlooking a small community under ISIS control. The Peshmerga observe the front behind a wall of sandbags, their Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers within arms’ reach, grenades sitting on a makeshift shelf.
The consensus is that the smuggled works of ancient art make their way north and east, along the same route ISIS uses to bring volunteers to the war. “All the fighters from the European countries, they come through Turkey,” argues Raheem. “Through Turkey… they support them, and they open the border for them. And from Daesh [an Arabic derogatory term for ISIS], it’s easy to sell everything in Turkey or maybe in the [Persian] Gulf area, or in Europe. Also, they have foreign people, they buy it with them.”
His colleagues in Erbil like Abdullah Khorseed Qadir, director of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, won’t come out and bluntly accuse Turkey, but they point to the aftermath of the liberation of Tal Abyad in June. It’s interesting, they note, that Turkey seemed to hardly care about Tal Abyad before; but it does now, making complaints to the U.S. and coalition forces about territorial integrity and what it calls incursions by Kurdish forces.
Mark Altaweel, a Near East Lecturer at the UCL Institute of Archaeology in London, says he’s “sure Turkey is a big supplier.” He adds that “stuff is also going to Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon in general has a long history in the antiquities market and key middlemen have been there in the past, moving things out of the region.” Syria, he points out, also has a long history of smuggling across the border.
Sam Hardy, a conflict antiquities expert also based in London, says ISIS isn’t the only culprit. A jihadist paramilitary group in northwest Syria, the Al-Ausoi Front, have smuggled people in “who were obviously going in and extracting antiquities.” Hardy says the people in question wouldn’t have gone in for a mere speculative journey. “They must have gone in to collect pieces they’d already identified, whether that was identified for extraction or identified for purchase.”
Like drug dealing, the little fish—the looters and handlers—get a very small percentage of the actual value of the object, as little as $50 within Syria, while the object might eventually sell for $5,000 in New York. Hardy says the freshly excavated objects are often not identifiable in any way, and even distinctive sculptures that might come from say, Palmyra in Syria, could be sold online, making prosecution extremely difficult. He even heard recently from a source about a smuggled antiquity that was carried off on a private jet to Saudi Arabia.
Hardy points out the guidelines for the UK’s Dealing in Cultural Objects Offenses Act “state that a failure to ask where something comes from should not constitute evidence of negligence or a lack of due diligence.”
“…Archaeologists don’t use saws.”
Such is Mark Altaweel’s professional expertise that he recently went into a few dealerships in London with a reporter from Britain’s Guardian newspaper and easily picked out items like glassware and statuary that in all probability came from the conflict zones. He says high value items are likely going to specific buyers. “I would imagine not typical art dealers but wealthy collectors or industrialists, following patterns from the past. I have no idea who specifically they are now, as I imagine this is kept quiet.”
Prestigious museums can also be involved in the illegal trade—and are sometimes unwitting buyers. When one dealer, for instance, offered a statue of Aphrodite eight years ago to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, the director of its conservation institute, Luis Monreal, spotted telltale signs it had come via a nefarious route, including new fractures that implied the piece had been broken apart for easier transport. “Any museum professional looking at an archeological piece in those conditions had to suspect it came from an illicit origin,” Monreal told the Los Angeles Times in 2007.
Sam Hardy says some dealerships brazenly advertise that soil is still on objects for sale—a clear sign something is off since archaeologists routinely clean their finds. “Another thing that I’ve seen… when they’re pieces that have been taken off larger structures is evidence of saw marks, which is pretty remarkable really, because again, archaeologists don’t use saws. But there are dealerships where they actually advertise the presence of saw marks on the backs of the objects from their removal from the structure.”
If Hardy has advice to help corporate art buyers avoid looted objects, it’s this: “You should expect full documentation of its entire background. If something doesn’t have paperwork, basically tracing it back to source, there’s something dodgy, whether it’s looted or forged,” he says.“And you know, even 60-plus years ago in Cyprus, they would record the origin of the object down to the most basic details, like the name of the farmer who found it in his field…”And there’s genuine incentive for sellers to produce records. You get almost double the price when objects are fully documented and properly licensed.
Picking up the trail of these priceless treasures has proved far less difficult, of course, than putting a stop to the trade altogether. Clemens Reichel, assistant professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Toronto, suggests a long-term loan system for major exhibits. “We could take custody, we could pay for conservation, for publication, and obviously we could create a bilateral agreement with the museums of origin to help them refurbish their galleries, to have a scholarly exchange, and frankly, I’d rather spend money on all of that than buying an antiquity. But that changes the role of the museum from the owner of antiquities to the custodian.”
Mark Altaweel recommends placing a moratorium on all Near East antiquities and their trade. Social pressure, similar to the kind exerted over blood diamonds, could be used to make it a stigma for anyone to get antiquities from the region. “It is often hard to tell if specific items are coming from Syria, so stopping the trade of antiquities from the Near East is the safest thing in my opinion. Law enforcement needs to take this more seriously as it has a possibility of harming the West and individuals, and is obviously funding nefarious activities.”
What may kill the latest wave of blood antiquities is the very thing that started it. On a blisteringly hot day in the market arcade across from Erbil’s Citadel, my travel arranger (read fixer), Khasraw Ahmed, and I pored over a map of Iraq, checking key locales where ISIS and the Peshmerga have been fighting. From the Bashik area, where we had come to spy over sandbags, off to the northeast of Sinjar near the Syrian border and then down to spots south and near Kirkuk, you can’t help but sense the Pershmerga is slowly closing around ISIS like a fist.
That means it’s not an if Mosul will be liberated, but a when. It will be a major strategic breakthrough, since you can draw a direct line to Sinjar on to the Syrian border. It’ll also be a significant victory for thousands of refugees waiting in camps to go home, and for those who believe an influential civilization thousands of years old deserve better than a bulldozer.
Before I flew to Iraq, I asked Clemens Reichel if there was any chance ISIS overlooked some valuable sites or that key finds could still be lying in the harsh Mesopotamian earth.
“It’s obviously very difficult… to completely destroy an archeological site. Partly because they are huge, and you don’t just need dynamite, you’re talking really about mining expeditions to completely clear away an archeological site. And even ISIS must realize that this is futile and ultimately stupid to do such a thing. So in spite of their best efforts, I’m pretty sure that they cannot completely undo our work, or make it irrelevant.”
The stones are simply waiting for the bandits to leave.
Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the August 2015 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine