As Iraqi forces are slowly gaining ground against ISIL fighters in Mosul, journalists have been shown the damage done to the museum in Mosul. The museum now sits almost completely empty, with many objects either carted away or smashed.
To be clear though, many of the objects in the museum had been taken away from the museum, an estimated 75% of the collection, as the museum was slated for renovation. Even some of the objects that were damaged and destroyed in the ISIL videos were likely museum-quality reproductions, so though the damage looked to have been catastrophic, many things survived. As for the portable objects, that material seems destined for the international antiquities market, likely with a fabricated history.
Earlier this week police in Europe announced the fruits of operation Pandora, an investigation into an international art trafficking network. In total, 75 people were arrested and 3,500 objects and artworks were seized. The investigation centered in Spain and Cyprus. The network allegedly moved works of art from conflict areas, and dealt in objects stolen from museums. The Europol press release boasted that over 48,000 individuals were investigated, almost 30,000 vehicles were investigated (along with 50 ships).
According to the release the aim of the investigation was to:
[d]ismantle criminal networks involved in cultural theft and exploitation, and identify potential links to other criminal activities. Moreover, there was a special focus on cultural spoliation, both underwater and on land, and the illicit trafficking of cultural goods, with a particular emphasis on conflict countries.
The operation was supported by UNESCO, INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization, Europol, and law enforcement officials from 18 countries. This was an extensive operation, which took a great deal of cooperation and resources. The investigators and policy makers who made this investigation successful should be commended. And yet, is this kind of large scale investigation sustainable? Will art thieves and traffickers be chastened and refrain from art crimes? Will the arrests actually produce successful prosecutions unlike so many of American investigations?
Reporting for the L.A. Times last week, Nabih Bulos indicates that with the rise in looting of ancient sites, the market demand is starting to also be met by forged antiquities:
“In the last year, we’ve caught thousands of pieces. We noticed that the percentage of fakes has risen up from 30 to 40% to over 70%,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums.
“Bibles, coins, statues … the buyer wants a certain model of artifact. The seller doesn’t have it, so you have workshops that produce fakes.”
On his laptop, Abdulkarim played a video depicting an open-air workshop, which he said was in the town of Khan Al-Subul in the rebel-held province of Idlib. Men, their hands covered in white dust, sit cross-legged on the ground, carving delicate patterns on pieces of stone.
Off to the side, one worker washes down a column head with a wet sponge. The rivulets of liquid work their way down the stone’s surface, leaving a dark sediment that would give it the appearance of age, according to Abdulkarim.
But are the faked antiquities new, or are we just paying more attention because of the loud destruction and institutionalized iconoclasm taking place in parts of Syria.
In 2009, Charles Stanish argued that he stopped worrying about the sale of faked antiquities on internet sites such as eBay, in the hopes that antiquities fakers would ultimately put antiquities forgers and looters out of business. In Syria at least, this report indicates that instead, the art market’s failure to often sell objects with detailed and legitimate histories leads to first looting, then also a rise in faked artworks. Some of course will argue that there should not be a market for this material at all. Others argue that the market should be preserved. The inability to compromise, of these two competing interests to even discuss the possibility of the other existing has served to preserve not the sites or context, but the black market in looted archaeological material and fake antiquities.
Last week, attorneys filed a civil forfeiture action on behalf of the United States for four antiquities allegedly being held as foreign assets of ISIL. The case marks a couple firsts. For one it is the first forfeiture action targeting foreign assets of ISIL of any kind. Second, it marks the first forfeiture initiated by the U.S. government of this kind, where the objects at issue have not been seized by the government, but rather only photographic and associated evidence of their possible introduction into the antiquities trade exists. As a consequence this is an extra-territorial forfeiture which shares many similarities with the efforts of Italian prosecutors to forfeit the Fano athlete/Getty Bronze.
The best overview of the forfeiture I’ve seen can be found at chasing aphrodite. There, Jason Felch was able to speak with Arvind Lal and Zia Faruqui in the U.S. Attorneys Office for the District of Colombia:
Where are the objects? Lal and Zia declined to say whether they knew where the objects were, citing the on-going investigation of the Abu Sayyaf material. But they said the complaint makes clear they are not currently in the United States.
Why file the complaint now? Lal said that the time between the May 2015 raid and the forfeiture complaint was necessary to conduct a thorough investigation of the records seized from Abu Sayyaf, consult with experts on the objects depicted in those records, coordinate with other federal agencies (FBI, State, Treasury and “other government agencies”) and compile the complaint. “We feel like we’ve done our homework with respect to these four items,” Lal said, suggesting that additional items may be added to the complaint in the future.
The practical implication of this forfeiture will mean that the market for these four objects, and perhaps objects like them, has been sharply diminished. The forfeiture complaint also details the ways in which looting takes place. The traditional rationales for antiquities looting may be much messier than we have thought, with women and family members forced to loot the al-Salihiyyah archaeological site to prevent harm to a young family member, as the documents seized in the Abu Sayyaf raid which have been made public for the first time in this complaint seem to show.
US files first case against ISIS to recover antiquities, http://ara.tv/m65yq (last visited Dec 20, 2016).
Former Senator and U.S. Representative Mark Udall argues President Obama could still set aside the “Bears Ears” National Monument:
The president has a rare opportunity to advance this proud tradition by protecting a spectacular area critical to our western heritage: Bears Ears, a 1.9 million-acre area in southern Utah replete with thousands of historic and cultural sites.
President Obama has already demonstrated his commitment to preserving and protecting unique public treasures for generations to come. He did so with Chimney Rock in southwest Colorado and again with Browns Canyon in Chaffee County. I was proud to champion both bipartisan efforts to protect these landscapes for future generations.
The president now has the chance to preserve lands vital to our nation’s heritage and history with the support of five Native American tribes whose heritage is memorialized in this area. He should utilize the Antiquities Act to protect the Bears Ears region in southeast Utah — a site that represents our western pioneering history and that of the tribal communities across the region, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Numerous Native American tribes trace their roots to Bears Ears. In fact, the strongest voices in favor of a designation have come from the Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, and Zuni tribes. The site also is home to artifacts from pioneers who made a home in the American West.
One of the prominent natural features in the landscape is Jacob’s Chair, named after my great-great grandfather, Jacob Hamlin, who was known as the Mormon Pathfinder. Hamlin spent his life working tirelessly to resolve conflicts that arose between the newly arrived settlers and the deeply rooted Native American tribes and bands already living in the area. His vision encompassed a future where both groups lived and worked together collaboratively, respecting each other’s traditions and beliefs, and living in harmony with the land. A Bears Ears National Monument would be a 21st century investment in that vision.
Police in Greece have announced the arrest of 26 individuals in connection with an antiquities looting network that had been operating for 10 years. The announcement showed the recovery of more than 2,000 objects, including coins, jewelry, and other objects. Two individuals were arrested last Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border with an astounding 1,000 coins and small portable objects hidden in the bumper of their car.
Police also confiscated metal detectors, guns, currency, and materials used to counterfeit currency.
The arrests on Sunday were the culmination of a 14-month investigation which may have involved as many as 50 people.
In an essay in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin criticizes the actions of UNESCO, the United States, and Russia in the wake of the retaking of Palmyra from the Islamic State.
For all the pageantry, the retaking of Palmyra has served as a powerful reminder of how detached from reality the international campaign to save Syria’s endangered cultural heritage has been. Chastened by the damage wrought in recent wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mali, Western leaders, cultural officials, UNESCO, and even the UN Security Council have for several years now devoted unprecedented attention to the threats to sites in Syria by ISIS and other extremist groups. Millions of dollars have been spent to document, with the best satellite technology available and other resources, the current condition of archaeological monuments in the areas of conflict; legal scholars have called for war crimes prosecutions against those who intentionally damage historic sites and monuments; while top officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and French President François Hollande, have long warned of the cost of Western inaction. Above all, a continuous series of initiatives have been aimed at cracking down on the international trade in looted Syrian antiquities, often described as a major revenue source for ISIS.