Simon Cox has a terrific investigative report from Lebanon on the trade in antiquities and how it may be funding the activities of the Islamic State. You can listen to the 38 minute BBC 4 radio program here. The report interviews one antiquities smuggler a Lebanese Police Lieutenant, and a Lebanese archaeologist. From the BBC story:
It has taken many calls and a lot of coaxing to get a man we are calling “Mohammed” to meet us. He is originally from Damascus but now plies his trade in the Bekaa valley on the border between Syria and Lebanon. He’s 21 but looks much younger in his T-shirt, skinny jeans and black suede shoes. As we sit in an apartment in central Beirut I have to lean forward to hear the softly spoken young man describe how he began smuggling looted antiquities from Syria. “There’s three friends in Aleppo we deal with, these people move from Aleppo all the way to the border here and pay a taxi driver to sneak it in.” He specialised in smaller items which would be easier to move on – but he says even that has become too risky. “We tried our best to get the items which had most value, earrings, rings, small statues, stone heads,” he says.
He made a good profit but bigger players with better connections “sold pieces worth $500,000, some for $1m”, he says. When I ask who’s making the money and controlling the trade in Syria his gentle voice takes on a flinty tone: “IS are the main people doing it. They are the ones in control of this business, they stole from the museums especially in Aleppo,” he says. “I know for a fact these militants had connections overseas and they talked ahead of time and they shipped overseas using their connections abroad.” Mohammed is still involved in cross-border trade, but no longer in antiquities. “Anyone caught with it gets severe punishment,” he says. “They accuse you of being IS.”
This is a timely report in that it adds firsthand accounts and reporting of the situation in Syria at present. Whether objects really are going for a million dollars is an open question. As the report notes, the reporters have no way of independently verifying Mohammed’s story. And the report offers much needed clarity to the overclaiming made by some about the extent to which the Islamic State is profiting from illicit antiquities trade.
One thing to consider. The UN Resolution on the restriction of funding the Islamic State (which Rick St. Hilaire describes here) may not do what heritage advocates want on its face. It may not take the drastic measures against the trade some may think necessary. But when the UN acts it sends a powerful signal. At the very least it prompts editors and reporters to look into the issue. And as a proud line of excellent investigative journalists have shown, investigating the antiquities trade makes for fascinating stories, and even offers surprising insights into how pervasive illicit material has been in the past.
The task of heritage advocates is to use this moment to advocate for effective change. These are the moments that present opportunity to effect real and lasting change. The difficulty of course is that there are very different accounts of what can and should be done. And if that gap doesn’t close, we are likely left with more looting and loss.
- Simon Cox BBC & Lebanon, The men who smuggle the loot that funds IS, BBC News (2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31485439.