Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ancient artifact collectors share a passion for history, culture, and aesthetics. The best collectors embrace their role as stewards of heritage by dutifully caring for cultural material through conservation, storage, display, and study. But as fighting in Syria and Iraq intensifies, principled collectors are asking how to avoid purchasing "blood antiquities."

Like archaeologists, heritage preservationists, and the concerned public, collectors have seen the disconcerting satellite images of looters' pits that confirm severe damage to the archaeological record, and they have listened to assessments by law enforcement officials pointing out that ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh engages in the looting and sale of antiquities. They are also cognizant of the U.N. Security Council's unanimous decision in February to adopt Resolution 2199, which plainly expresses that terrorists "are generating income from engaging ... in the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items ... in Iraq and Syria...." And today they learn that the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee will take up S.1887, legislation that is similar to H.R. 1493, which authorizes emergency protections for endangered Syrian cultural property.

To steer clear of collecting potential ISIS loot, Richard Stengel, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, recently tweeted this judicious guidance, “Don't sell; don't buy. That's one solution." Collectors would be well advised to heed this recommendation and avoid purchasing cultural heritage objects that appear to have surfaced from war-torn Syria or Iraq.

Yet a number of undaunted collectors will continue to shop the nubilous marketplace, optimistic that they will discover authentic and legal artifacts that, hopefully, do not contribute to terrorist funding or money laundering. For them, caveat emptor should remain the guidepost and strict due diligence the rule, particularly since mounting evidence offers abundant reasonable suspicion that would compel an ethical collector of ordinary caution to demand clear answers from a dealer about the exact origins, export, import, transshipment, and chain of possession of art, artifacts, or antiquities believed to have originated from the Middle East.

The justifiable suspicion that heritage trafficking funds terrorism received added confirmation in May when U.S. Special Operations Forces seized 700 cultural objects during a raid on an ISIS compound in the al-Amr region of eastern Syria. That area borders Iraq's Anbar and Nineveh provinces. The Department of Defense (DoD) implicated the owner of the collection in ISIS combat operations and asserted that the man, known only as Abu Sayyaf, "helped direct the terrorist organization's illicit oil, gas, and financial operations as well."

The captured trove reportedly included bronze coins with Greek, Latin, and Arabic inscriptions (top); silver dirhams (right); copper bracelets (bottom left); gold dinars; cylinder seals; and more. As is typical with the black market trade, the genuine articles appear to have been mixed together with reproductions.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones, offered the opinion that the raid revealed more than the ordinary measure of evidence. He contended, during a ceremony repatriating the objects, “These artifacts are indisputable evidence that Da’esh—beyond its terrorism, brutality, and destruction—is also a criminal gang that is looting antiquities from museums and historical sites and selling them on the black market."

Given the totality of data uncovered over the last several years linking trafficked heritage with terrorism, war, and money laundering, the largest community of collectors—museums—have taken steps to warn the public about the proliferation of the black trade. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) in September 2013 published a Red List spotlighting Syrian cultural objects at risk of plunder, and just last month the organization distributed a refreshed Red List covering Iraqi artifacts. The Red Lists help readers identify the kinds of artifacts looted from archaeological sites, stolen from museums, or smuggled across borders so that the distribution and sale of these precious heritage objects can be stopped.

The Red Lists signal extreme caution, and collectors of all stripes would gain peace of mind by provisionally abstaining from the purchase of objects that are believed to have originated from Syria or Iraq. Curbing consumer demand at the present time would have the added benefit of sending a message to suppliers that even the slightest hint of conflict-related commodities will not be tolerated in the legitimate stream of commerce.

Collectors determined to remain in the market, meanwhile, should employ a strict due diligence strategy to sharply limit the chances of acquiring possible contraband or facilitating money laundering. One suggested due diligence guideline—authored by individual collectors and presented to the pro-collecting Ancientartifacts forum in 2009—is titled A Code of Ethics for Collectors of Ancient Artifacts. It remains a useful resource today, admonishing collectors to:
  • protect archaeological heritage and uphold the law
  • check sources,
  • collect sensitively,
  • recognize the collector’s role as custodian,
  • keep artifacts in one piece and consider the significance of groups of objects,
  • promote further study, and
  • dispose of artifacts responsibly.
To achieve these goals, the ethics code highlights common sense due diligence and acquisitions advice, including:
  • "Ask the vendor for all relevant paperwork relating to provenance, export etc."
  • "Take extra care if collecting particular classes of object which have been subjected to wide-scale recent looting.”
  • "Verify a vendor’s reputation independently before buying. Assure yourself that they are using due diligence in their trading practices, and do not support those who knowingly sell fakes as authentic or offer items of questionable provenance."
  • "Do not dismember any item, or acquire a fragment which you believe to have been separated from a larger object except through natural means."
  •  "Consider the implications of buying an item from an associated assemblage and the impact this could have on study."
  • "Liaise, where possible, with the academic and broader communities about your artifacts."
Collecting can play a constructive role in the stewardship of legally acquired and suitably documented artifacts. But in today's conflict-ridden environments in Syria and Iraq, guarding against criminal trafficking and the facilitation of terrorist financing is a heightened concern, which should prompt collectors to effectuate appropriate safeguards. "Don't buy" is the best protective measure, while strict due diligence remains a secondary, yet imperfect, line of defense for those willing to assume the risks in the traditionally opaque marketplace.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

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