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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

"Antiques" from Iraq: Trade Stats Raise Questions

Iraq has been identified as a source of conflict antiquities, which is why the International Council of Museums refreshed its Red List of endangered Iraqi cultural property in June 2014 and why the United Nations Security Council last February unanimously adopted a resolution targeting heritage trafficking in the region as a source of terror funding.

With this in mind, it is surprising that “antiques" ranked as the #4 declared import to the United States from Iraq by value in 2014, the latest date for which complete data is available from the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC). In fact, there were more antiques imported from Iraq than goods like lambskin leather, dates and figs, fruit juices, and even spices.

Totaling $3,378,296 in general customs value, these antique imports “of an age exceeding 100 years” were outpaced in value only by America’s largest and most predictable import from Iraq, namely crude oil (#1) and non-crude oil (#2), as well as reimports of various articles originally exported from the U.S. (#3).

Importers of record are legally responsible for declaring goods on customs entry forms by supplying information such as proper value, correct country of origin, accurate Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) classification, and complete product description. Of course there are many examples of traffickers who try to skirt their obligations in an effort to smuggle cultural heritage objects into the U.S. illegally, which is why antiques imports from Iraq should be scrutinized.

It is not known how many legal or illegal antiquities importers brought into the U.S. from Iraq last year. What is known is that declared imports of  "antiques" classified under HTS 9706 originated from a war zone where cultural heritage is in jeopardy. What commodities were exactly shipped to American ports of entry and why, in fact, did the bulk of declared HTS 9706 commodities originating from Iraq--$3,330,619 worth--get shipped to New York City remains a mystery, at least for now.

Were these imports deliberately misclassified to plausibly conceal illegally dug-up ancient tablets, foundation cones, sculptures, and more? Possibly. Or did a legal trade in vintage trays and antique coffee pots actually spike for some reason because of the conflict? Customs officials should find out for certain, particularly given the identified threat posed to archaeological site looting and museum and storehouse theft as a result of the unrest in Iraq.

There is another interesting observation. Among the 37 kinds of commodities imported into the U.S. from Iraq in 2014, antiques, together with with three other types of goods categorized under the broad import category of HTS 97 Works of Art, Collectors’ Pieces and Antiques, exceeded all other imports by value of primary Iraqi origin, except oil. The declared value of the HTS 97 commodities together totaled $3,554,595. So customs officials should also find out what goods importers actually classified as collections and collectors’ pieces of historical, archaeological, or numismatic interest under HTS 9705; as original sculptures and statuary under HTS 9703; and as paintings under HTS 9701.

One armed group operating in both Iraq and Syria is the terror organization ISIS, which reportedly has exploited cultural property as an important revenue stream. Suspiciously, the #1 U.S. category of imports by value from Syria in 2014 was “Antiques.” And now USITC trade data show that American imports from Iraq unveil further red flags.

Until the fighting subsides, and until customs officials learn more about the unanswered questions swirling around American imports of Iraqi cultural heritage goods, collectors would be well-advised not to buy heritage material from the region, or at least exercise rigorous due diligence when buying, in order to steer clear of acquiring potential ISIS loot.

Photo credit: Sam LeVan

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