Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Russian Ambassador's Short Letter Makes Big Claims About Looted Syrian Antiquities

A letter from Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy to the United Nations, has named dealers and shippers alleged to have facilitated the trade of looted antiquities from ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. Delivered to the UN Security Council on March 31, 2016 and released to the public today, the communication caught the attention of cultural property watchers, the media, and Turkey because of its blunt and provocative claims.

The two page correspondence identified the Turkish city of Gaziantep (see map below) as the focal point of smuggling "where the stolen goods are sold at illegal auctions and then through a network of antique shops and at the local market, BakırcılarÇarşısi (Eski Saray Street, Şekeroğlu district)." 

Ambassador Churkin announced that "new offices for the purchase of antiquities have opened on the Turkish-Syrian border in the administrative district of Akçakale...." He daringly identified the owner of an antique shop in the town of Kilis as a person "involved in the illicit trade" before proceeding to list individual Turkish transport companies that carried "bulky goods," describing how "[s]muggled artefacts (jewellery, coins, etc.) then arrive in the Turkish cities of Izmir, Mersin and Antalya, where representatives of international criminal groups produce fake documents on the origin of the antiquities."

The ambassador's letter contended that " ISIL has been exploiting the potential of social media more and more frequently so as to cut out the middleman and sell artefacts directly to buyers. Preference is given to cash transactions, while transactions conducted over the Internet involve the same financial institutions as are involved in transactions for the purchase of weapons and ammunition."

While the ambassador professed that "profit derived by the Islamists from the illicit trade in antiquities and archaeological treasures is estimated at US$ 150-200 million per year," he failed to provide details would back the claim. Instead, he offered an overview of the antiquities trafficking pipeline, explaining how ISIS maintains an antiquities division that is "part of the so-called ministry for control of natural resources within the group’s 'government.'" He remarked that "individuals in possession of a written permit stamped by this 'department' are permitted by the Islamists to carry out excavations and to remove and transport excavated items." Such claims match those made by the US government last year.

"The antiquities are ... offered to collectors from various countries," ambassador Churkin commented, "generally through Internet auction sites," several of which he plainly singled out. The wrongdoers, he said, "employ concealment measures, such as IP-address spoofing, which makes it difficult to identify and determine the actual location of the seller."

Ambassador Churkin's statements have not been verified by an independent third party. Nevertheless, collectors of cultural heritage objects should continue to exercise reasonable caution during this time of conflict in Syria by steering clear of archaeological objects that potentially originate from the region.

The map marks the location of Gaziantep, a crossroads of antiquities trafficking according to Ambassador Churkin.
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