The jihadist group looted archaeological sites, but don't expect to see treasures any time soon.
The Islamist movement that has been a main focus of attention in the Near East these past few years jumped into the headlines with their brutal treatment of “infidels.” Jihadists of the Islamic State group cutting throats, burning people alive, selling women and girls into sexual slavery and throwing suspected homosexuals off tall buildings all made for dramatic stories in the Western press.
Their destruction of precious cultural artifacts elicited almost as much outrage. ISIS took sledgehammers and bulldozers to ancient sacred art and even certain Islamic shrines because they considered the objects of veneration to be illicit idols.
Yet, for all their supposed theological purity, there’s a practical side to those who hoped to establish a “caliphate,” as well. Though some of those cultural artifacts might have been the object of idol worship, they could also fetch a nice price on the black market.
Now, months after Iraq and Western allies declared ISIS’s defeat on the battlefield, the battle to reclaim those artifacts is underway. But experts predict that that war might continue for several generations.
In an article at Vice, Kathleen Caulderwood said ISIS is making millions selling antiquities looted in Syria and that the FBI has requested help from museums and antiquities dealers to halt the trade in looted and stolen artifacts from Syria and Iraq.
It may be quite some time before the artifacts see the light of day. Looters and dealers hope that by the time objects resurface, it will be difficult to trace their sales back to those who profited in nefarious ways.
Traffickers shift their routes and methods quickly to avoid detection as law enforcement evolves, said Lynda Albertson, head of the Association for Research in Crimes against Art, or ARCA. The articles travel the world in car trunks, pockets, shipping containers, and other kinds of transport used to move black market goods. This often includes mislabeling, bribery, fake documents, and other methods that can be used to get the cargo out of the conflict country.
The safest bet for smugglers is something that was recently excavated, the article points out.
“Collectors and dealers know that it is an almost impossible task for law enforcement investigators to prove that something freshly dug out of the ground, with no prior collection history, or record of existence, has been acquired by illegal or destructive means,” Albertson said. “That’s what makes buying ‘fresh’ so appealing.”
Explained Vice’s Caulderwood: “These dealers get their hands on the artifacts while they’re still ‘hot,’ with plans to sell them once public attention has moved on. By then, items can leak into the so-called ‘licit markets.'”
To help fight the problem, organizations such as the International Council of Museums Create “red lists” of antiquities that museums and dealers should watch out for. … An “emergency” list for Syria was created in 2013. “Museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors are encouraged not to acquire such objects without having carefully and thoroughly researched their origin and all the relevant legal documentation,” the list warns.
But, Caulderwood notes, the list not be useful for the next few years or even decades, as these artifacts remain lost deep in black markets.