Three academics (Amr Al-Azm, Salam al-Kuntar, and Brian I. Daniels) who have been training Syrian preservationists in Southern Turkey have some more anecdotal insights into how deep the connection between ISIS and the illicit antiquities trade is in an OpEd appearing in the International NY Times:
In extensive conversations with those working and living in areas currently under ISIS control, we learned that ISIS is indeed involved in the illicit antiquities trade, but in a way that is more complex and insidious than we expected. (Our contacts and sources, whom we cannot name for reasons of their safety, continue their work under the most dangerous of conditions.)
ISIS does not seem to have devoted the manpower of its army to the active work of looting archaeological sites. Rather, its involvement is financial. In general, ISIS permits local inhabitants to dig at these sites in exchange for a percentage of the monetary value of any finds.
The group’s rationale for this levy is the Islamic khums tax, according to which Muslims are required to pay a percentage of the value of any goods or treasure recovered from the ground. ISIS claims to be the legitimate recipient of such proceeds.
The amount levied for the khums varies by region and the type of object recovered. In ISIS-controlled areas at the periphery of Aleppo Province in Syria, the khums is 20 percent. In the Raqqa region, the levy can reach up to 50 percent or even higher if the finds are from the Islamic period (beginning in the early-to-mid-seventh century) or made of precious metals like gold.
The scale of looting varies considerably under this system, and much is left to the discretion of local ISIS leaders. For a few areas, such as the ancient sites along Euphrates, ISIS leaders have encouraged digging by semiprofessional field crews. These teams are often from Iraq and are applying and profiting from their experience looting ancient sites there. They operate with a “license” from ISIS, and an ISIS representative is assigned to oversee their work to ensure the proper use of heavy machinery and to verify accurate payment of the khums.
But how much exactly does this amount to? The answer is difficult to quantify. As Sam Hardy points out, the recent claim that ISIS has garnered $36m from antiquities looted in its territory is likely inaccurate:
I can only reiterate that it is (literally) unimaginable that the Islamic State is making $36m from a 0.2%-0.4% share of the market value of the antiquities that have been looted from one district under its rule (as $36m from a 20% khums tax on looters’ and traffickers’ own 1%-2% share would imply a trade value of $9b-$18b of antiquities from al-Nabk alone).
NPR yesterday featured an interview with Christopher Dickey, foreign editor for the Daily Beast, discussing the risks posed to antiquities in Mosul:
Well, what’s at risk are some beautiful monumental sculptures, these winged figures, lions and bulls, with the faces of bearded men – Kings, that clearly were idols in the time of the Assyrians. But that are now part and parcel of the history of Western civilization and biblical history especially. And then we’ve also got gorgeous gold jewelry which certainly will go onto the black market and all kinds of smaller pieces of sculpture, earthenware, the kinds of things that give you the texture as well as the beauty of life in that period. So it’s a rich museum but all of that collection is now in the hands of ISIS.
Museums and the field of archaeology often have an uneasy relationship. Archaeologists deal in context, unearthing the history with careful study. Museums have varied missions. Some display fine art, some focus on amassing as many masterpieces as possible, others attempt to teach, or aim to give an overview of a certain period of art, or even all of human history in the case of the massive “universal” museums. But few museums grapple with archaeology in a meaningful way; and few archaeologists, apart from those who work to prevent the illicit trade in antiquities, concern themselves with museums.
That is a shame I think. The preservation of archaeological sites needs financial and material support from governments and non-governmental organizations. That support must be demanded by an interested public. Archaeologists cannot simply work in isolation without engaging the broader public in what it is that they do. Forward-thinking archaeologists would be wise to examine a powerful exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago: The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology.
A glimmer of good news from Iraq, where cultural heritage has sustained so much damage. Martin Bailey reports for the Art Newspaper that the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad could reopen as soon as next year. The museum (and other in Iraq) were shuttered during the 1991 Gulf War, and have only intermittently reopened in the subsequent two decades.
The main obstacle given to reopening the Baghdad museum is the lack of a new entrance building, needed to strengthen security and provide facilities, such as a café. Initially it was to be a replica of the Ishtar Gate at Babylon, but this idea was dropped as it was thought to be too gimmicky. Building work has now started on a more conventional entrance building. The tense security situation in Baghdad has also contributed to the decade-long delay. Most of the Baghdad museum’s curatorial and administrative staff of 130 are working on a database of the collection, which Eden said numbers more than 500,000 objects (around half are antiquities and the remainder individual coins). Only 50,000 items have been added to the database after years of work, so at this rate it will take many decades to complete. The labelling of antiquities in the galleries is rudimentary and needs improving.
And there are even plans to convert one of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces to a new museum with antiquities and exhibits describing Sumer, Babylon and Ashur.
The first phase of the building work involving the palace’s exterior and installing security measures was completed a year ago, but the second phase has been delayed because the lengthy process of electing a new governor for Basra province has slowed down the tender process. Qahtan Al Abeed said that the museum’s interior should be completed in a year.
Jason Felch reported for the LA Times art blog that Cornell University is slated to return an astounding 10,000 clay tablets to Iraq. Some date to the fourth millennium BCE. The collection was donated by Jonathan Rosen. Rosen was a business partner of Robert Hecht for a time. Hecht’s name will be familiar to many, as he was a dealer with deep connections to many likely-looted antiquities.
Many of the thousands of tablets may have been looted after the 1991 Gulf War. Felch reports that one subsection of the tablets were valued at $50,000 when they were imported; but received a whopping $900,000 tax deduction when they were gifted to Cornell in 2000. That in a nutshell is the sad tale of how looted antiquities can pay big for wealthy collectors.
But also, neither Cornell nor Rosen will discuss how these tablets were acquired, or much of anything about their ownership history. Leading to the likelihood that some or all of the objects are stolen, looted, or even fakes.
From the piece:
Harold Grunfeld, attorney for Jonathan Rosen, said all of the tablets “were legally acquired” and that the federal investigation found “no evidence of wrongdoing.” He said the tablets at issue were donated by Rosen’s late mother, Miriam.
“It has always been the Rosen family’s intent that these tablets reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research and for the benefit of the public as a vast informational tool in explaining life in the ancient world,” Grunfeld said.
The Iraqi government requested the return of the tablets last year, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Binghamton, N.Y., is brokering the transfer.
“We’re not accusing anyone of a crime, but we believe they should be returned,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Miro Lovric.
Cornell officials declined to comment pending a formal announcement but issued a statement saying that the university “appreciates the opportunity it has had to participate in the preservation and study of these invaluable historical artifacts and welcomes the opportunity to continue this work in participation with the U.S. and Iraqi governments.”
Yesterday on “All Things Considered” Farah Stockman talks about the return of the statue of King Entemena and other objects. Stockman talks about the comments of the Iraqi Ambassador:
It was very moving to hear him talk about the statue and what it meant to him personally to have it come back and how it was this metaphor for Iraq, basically how, you know, how destruction is so much quicker than construction. He said it took four days for them to loot all these things, and it’s taken seven years for us to get even a third of them back. And he said we’ll be working on this for 20 years, and we may never get them all back.
As good a description as any about the harms which flow from theft and destruction of heritage. Yet a complicating factor in Iraq is ensuring that returned objects are cared for. Larry Rothfield says the loss of another shipment of repatriated objects is “one more piece of evidence, if that were required, that the State Department dropped the ball completely by focusing its efforts on restoring the museum rather than on helping the Iraqis get their cultural policy infrastructure set up properly”.
A 4,400 year old statue of King Entemena looted and now returned
In a ceremony today 542 works of art and objects were returned from the United States to Iraq. Among the items returned were:
[A] 4,400-year-old statue of King Entemena of Lagash looted from the National Museum . . . an even older pair of gold earrings from Nimrud stolen in the 1990’s and seized before being auctioned at Christie’s in New York last December; and 362 cuneiform clay tablets that had been smuggled out of Iraq before the invasion . . . There was also a more recent relic: a chrome-plated AK-47 with a pearl grip and an engraving of Mr. Hussein, taken by an American solider as booty and displayed at Fort Lewis, in Washington.
Yet a senior Iraqi official admitted that 632 other pieces returned by U.S. forces have apparently gone missing. They were supposed to have been shipped to the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office via a flight authorized by Gen. Petraeus, Steven Lee Myers reports for the NYT that antiquities returned to Iraq are in a “revolving door”. Iraq’s ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaidaie told reporters ““We asked the US military to move it to Iraq. When the pieces arrived in Iraq, they were delivered to the office of the prime minister and now we are trying to find them”. Perhaps the attention paid to these newly returned artifact will help to recover the previous shipment.
Randy Kennedy has a fascinating piece in the NY Times detailing the Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities (MEGA), which uses google earth satellite images to catalog and crowdsource sites and the conditions which may be threatening them. the Getty Conservation Institute with financial support from the World Monuments Fund has been building the system over the last for years. Kennedy reports the project will “allow archaeologists and conservators there, for the first time, to gain access to decades’ worth of records about Jordan’s sites and to monitor the condition of those sites much more easily”.
Lest the website be used by looters to find sites, the information is currently restricted to a select group of individuals. This project was originally designed to be implemented in Iraq, however “the chaos and violence in Iraq ultimately prevented the Getty from being able to work with officials there to create what was originally planned to be a local database program, not one that utilized the Web.” There are plans to implement the system in Iraq soon, and if this program works well in Jordan, and the middle east, this program could be implemented just about anywhere else in the world.
Iraqi police announced today the seizure of 39 antiquities discovered hidden near a shrine outside Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq. These included clay tablets and statues, some of which may date from the 4,000 year-old Sumerian civilization. Are these objects from one of Iraq’s museums? Were these objects looted from nearby archaeological sites? If I could speculate on why the objects were hidden near a shrine: it may have been a convenient place to hide these looted objects for sale to visitors to the shrine.
Google has announced it will create a digital record of the Baghdad museum’s collection, and will make the images available online by early next year. As Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive announced last week, “The history of the beginning of – literally – civilization… is preserved in this museum.” Over 14,000 images have been taken, allowing the Iraqi public, and the rest of the world to see the images.
Rod Norland notes in an article for the New York Times that the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had already digitized part of the collection, and created a website, the virtual Museum of Iraq. So there is some duplication here. A few things to take away from the announcement.
First, it seems like a good idea to digitize these objects, and make the images available to to public generally. However many other museums are unlikely to take this step, at least in the short term. We don’t know how expensive an undertaking this was, as the costs are born by the US State Department and Google. But museums also will fear the loss of revenue from their own publications. As many museums prohibit photography, often the only way to take home a photographic souvenir of the visit is to purchase the shiny museum publications. Of course part of the impetus for this digitization project is to make these work accessible—at least in a digital way—to members of the public who are unable to visit the Baghdad museum.
Secondly, I wonder what procedures google followed with the project. Are these high-resolution images which will be useful for scholars? Will these images contain information on the history of the objects? When they were excavated? Where they were unearthed? And finally, will these images be made available to the various stolen art databases. If another tragedy were to befall this important museum, will these images be useful to help prevent the sale of artifacts?