Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Now You Can Buy Your Very Own Bronze Age Bust from Syria, Direct to You!

The Wall Street Journal is bringing public attention to bear on the ongoing decimation of Syrian archaeological sites by market-driven antiquities looters putatively overseen and enabled by ISIS. 

The most recent article is notable for several reasons:

First, the messaging from heritage protection advocates has advanced beyond the sensationalist proffering of dubiously astonishing guesstimates that give recalcitrant dealers and collectors an excuse for avoiding the main issue, which is the amount of looting going on and its impact on archaeological sites. 

Second, it documents what many have suspected, that the high end at least of the illicit market is direct-to-buyer (though we have no way to know whether the buyer is a collector or a dealer):

...Islamic State is using its vast network and social-media savvy to bypass conventional middlemen and reach buyers directly. The looters store the booty in a secret location then circulate the photos directly to buyers in hard copy or via text message or the WhatsApp messaging service, law-enforcement officials say. 
The Wall Street Journal reviewed cellphone photos of a Bronze Age votive bust, possibly 5,000 years old, looted from Islamic State-controlled territory, being touted for sale to private clients and potentially sold for around $30,000.
 Third, as the asking price of $30,000 indicates, the high end is high enough to constitute a huge incentive for looters in a country where 80% of the population makes less than $286 per year.  Even with a mark-up of 100:1 from the site to the dealer, finding this one piece would be worth a year's work for most Syrians. 

Third, extremely dangerous undercover work to infiltrate the smuggling networks by posing as dealers is being done: 

senior members of the group have begun posing as antiques dealers to snare information on looted items. The disguised archaeologists contact looters and photograph artifacts, before emailing pictures to academics in Europe who pass information onto law enforcement agencies. Hundreds of looted artifacts have been photographed, including a 1,500-year-old mosaic of a bearded biblical figure in a green-and-blue striped tunic ripped from a wall of an Idlib church.
Fourth, the international community appears to be getting its crime-fighting act together, evidenced not only by the sharing of these photos with law enforcement, and by the scrutiny by "European and U.S. spy agencies" of photos sent via text messages and WhatsApp but by what is apparently a stepping-up of efforts by bordering countries to clamp down:
Security forces in Lebanon and Jordan have stepped up raids on smuggling rings. In Turkey, special police antismuggling units conducted dozens of raids in Turkey’s southern cities since last summer.
 Unfortunately, the independent activities of the daring group of archaeologists apparently isn't getting the support needed. And one also has to wonder how much material is bleeding out of Syria via Iraq into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, not discussed in this article but theologically sympathetic to ISIS and therefore not unlikely to have dealers able to be approved by ISIS.  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Association of Art Museum Directors' Opposition to MOUs: Is it Justifiable, and What's the Alternative?

Rick Saint-Hilaire has an interesting post noting that the AAMD appears to have changed its policy stance towards Memos of Understanding, shifting from muted acquiescence or support to outright opposition. Several colleagues have already commented on facebook at how troubling this shift is. But it's also troubling that the law establishing the MoU system is not what many of us whose primary concern is stopping the market-driven looting of archaeological sites want it to be, i.e., not just a way to close down US imports regardless of any other factors. It requires countries asking for this restriction to do certain things, and supposedly lets us off the hook -- or, if one prefers, enables us to put pressure on those countries to live up to their end of the deal -- if they do not do those things, whether the reason they do not is corruption, indifference, or revolution. 

Reading the AAMD's brief on El Salvador as an example, one has to admit that they make a strong case, based on the evidence they provide, that the Salvadoran government is not doing a very good job. Because governmental presentations to CPAC are not made public, there is no way to know how or even if the Salvadoran government has refuted the charges the AAMD makes. The best we have is a  brief from the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Protection which does not address the evidence offered by the AAMD, and as evidence of El Salvador's  offers a single example of a joint operation initiated, it seems, by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We have no way to know  how much El Salvador is spending on site protection, customs inspections, etc. etc., whether that amount has increased either in absolute terms or relative to the country's overall budget, or what the fruits of this expenditure have been.

The AAMD's more general policy position seems now to be that MOUs are not working and should be scrapped. In favor of what? The AAMD suggests that countries should open their markets and tax the exports to pay for more better policing (and, just coincidentally of course, to bring more better antiquities to museums). 

This is an intriguing suggestion, despite the fact that it is both politically unrealistic (they really think El Salvador's Ministry of Culture is going to go back to their government and persuade them that they have to both let national patrimony be bought up by foreigners and institute new taxes, because the museums and collectors in the US have reopened the US end of the market and caused a spike in looting as a result?), and bureaucratically unfeasible -- since, as the AAMD notes, corruption is a major problem, it's hard to see how the tax will be collected and revenues find their way to site protectors. What makes it interesting is that the AAMD recognizes that the general idea of taxing the market for antiquities to pay for site protection is a good one.  

The next step would be for the AAMD to propose, whether as a quid pro quo for abandoning particular MOUs or simply as a more effective way to bring looting under control enough to make MOUs unnecessary, that the US impose taxes on the import and sale of antiquities here. The funds raised could then be funneled -- perhaps via the newly proposed White House coordinator -- into targeted programs aimed at improving site protection and other anti-looting and anti-site-destruction efforts. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Numbers that matter: the AAAS Report on Site Looting in Syria, and where we go from here

The tempest in a teapot about how much the looted artifacts are worth or whether they are the third or fourth largest source of revenue for ISIS should not distract us from the main point, made irrefutably by this gold-standard analysis of the hardest of hard data: market-driven looting of archaeological sites is rampant in Syria.

What's needed most now, the next step, is not more argument about how much, but more clarity about where and how looted materials move from site to various destinations, through what exchanges, with what participants.  That information in turn will help inform market design research by economists, by providing answers to such questions as:  Where, if anywhere, are the most fragile links in the supply-chains? Where can leverage be most effectively brought to bear (for instance, by the US on emirates that are providing freeports for transiting illicit antiquities and enabling their own wealthy citizens to amass collections of illicit antiquities)? How can the various tools of governmental and intergovernmental action be used not to make these markets more efficient but to disrupt, cool, or smother them?

This is the direction, at least, that we're trying to pursue more generally in the project now getting underway at Chicago,

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pick a Number, Any Number

A new post on Chasing Aphrodite continues the scolding of the press and of those who are passing on unsubstantiated claims about just how much money ISIS is making from the sale of looted antiquities.

I'm all for data-informed policymaking; I'm an academic, after all. But with regard to the "second largest source of revenue to ISIS" meme, it is worth remembering a few things:

1. In the long term we are all dead, said Keynes, and in the short term getting attention paid to archaeological looting has had very positive stimulative effects in the area of heritage protection at least (witness the White House Coordinator law just proposed).

2.  More generally, the notion that credibility will be sapped by the flogging of dubious factoids is not supported by any evidence I know of in public policy studies, and indeed there's plenty of evidence that even outright lies have very long tails and only sap credibility when they lead to what are retrospectively recognized to have been disastrous policy decisions.

3.  There are, of course, two, not just one policy decision in play: one having to do with heritage protection efforts, the other, much bigger one having to do with how to deal with the challenge posed by ISIS. Here we need to make a distinction that I don't see Felch making between information that drives and information that helps sell policymaking. The policy decision to escalate, while perhaps disastrous (time will tell), may have been justified ex post facto by the meme about antiquities looting, but it surely wasn't caused by it.  What got that decision made was not the lopping off of the heads of statues but the lopping off of human heads.

4. What we need more than strictly accurate numbers is a general sense of the scale, drivers, and vectors of looting and the market that can help guide policymaking to intervene in the most effective ways possible.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Scathing critique of UNESCO's ineffectual response to Syrian crisis

Michel al-Maqdissi, former director of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums' Archaeological Excavations department, points out the ways in which UNESCO has failed to go beyond the traditional list of UNESCO measures to do more than what it traditionally does (i.e., training customs officials, putting monuments that are already damaged on the "threatened" list) -- and does, Maqdissi notes, too little too late. The article is interesting throughout, but for me the following points stood out:

-- Qatna-Mishirfeh, a famous site, has not been looted. Maqdissi says this is because it is too famous and people would know, but he also notes that "in contrast to other sites, Qatna-Mishirfeh is still being guarded."

--the majority of looters are professionals working in gangs that learned their trade in Iraq. 

-- it does not make economic sense for armed groups to go into the antiquities trade, since it is not a quick business and rebels need money fast. (This is true, but if the gangs are being taxed, as reports have suggested, then rebels can milk the trade, assuming the gangs are adequately capitalized to be able to retain inventory as we know they have done with the massive amounts looted in Iraq from 2004-2006.)

-- UNESCO has been training the staff of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums but not the activist groups engaged directly in trying to protect sites and museums.

-- Nor is UNESCO thinking about ways to get Syria's site guards paid:
Traditionally, the guards are paid by the Syrian government and by foreign archaeological missions, which usually brought the money into the country themselves. 
For more than three years now, foreigners have stayed away. I have tried to help by picking up the money personally at foreign institutions and sending it from Lebanon to trustworthy Syrians, who gave it to the Directorate of Antiquities so that the guards' wages can be paid for another year. But that only helped a small number of the guards. According to my estimates, 30 to 40 per cent of them no longer receive any money. The sites of the ancient trading city of Mari-Tell Hariri, for example, are currently being guarded by overburdened villagers.
It would be interesting to take a look at UNESCO's budget to see how much has been spent on its international meetings and on conservation training, and to ask how many sites would have been saved from looters had the funds instead gone to pay site guards' salaries. But that's an academic question, since as Maqdissi says, UNESCO's bureaucracy is very entrenched -- including, notably, the experts whose expertise is not in guarding but in conserving -- , making it almost impossible to redirect resources.
And one can see why paying for site guards might open a can of worms for UNESCO. The World Heritage Fund's annual assistance budget for the entire world is only $4 million, and while Syria's situation is perhaps the most desperate, there are many, many countries lacking the money to pay for enough site guards. 
So where is the money to come from? One answer, laid out by Mounir Bouchenaki in his contribution to Antiquities Under Siege, might be actually funding the Intergovernmental Fund for the Protection of Cultural Property in Times of Conflict, established but (to my knowledge) never actually contributed to by any state party. 
Don't hold your breath on that happening any time soon. It would take leadership from the US, which sends John Kerry to talk loftily at the Metropolitan Museum about the need to do something to stop the looting of sites in Syria but whose policy moves have been limited to helping document the damage. 
There are, to be sure, other funding sources in the world aside from governments and foreign archaeological missions. One could imagine, for instance, the antiquities dealers associations, museum directors' associations, and a phalanx of ultra-wealthy enlightened collectors, all led perhaps by James Cuno, coming together to set up their own fund. Or, better still, lobbying the governments of major collecting nations to set up funds and generate the revenues to go into those funds via a tax on antiquities sales. 
Wouldn't that be great?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Zahi Hawass and the theory of deterrence

Zahi Hawass calls for Egypt's Antiquities Law to be amended to provide for harsher punishment for antiquities crimes, arguing that this will deter looters. But the law, according to the article, already calls for a minimum three year sentence.

Would ratcheting that sentence up to five or more years make any difference? That depends. As Gary Becker and Michel Foucault in their very different ways have both noted, deterrence only works if three things are all true: the risk of being caught is substantial; punishment is severe and certain enough to induce fear; and criminals know the risks of being caught and the price they would pay. The key point for Egypt, presumably is that if the risk of being caught continues to be low, then making an already substantial penalty more severe is not going to change the calculations of looters.

We have evidence for this from 1990s Iraq. Saddam introduced the death penalty for looting after the US established no-fly zones that made it impossible to effectively police the archaeological sites and looting soared. Even though ten looters were beheaded on national television, the Draconian penalties did little to slow down the looting.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Kaylan's review of the new Metropolitan Museum show

Melik Kaylan reviews the awesome new show at the Metropolitan Museum. As he makes clear, it is well worth seeing. One sentence in the review, however, gives us pause: "That their civilization was centered for a while in what is now Mosul, Iraq, gives us pause. Many such objects would now be endangered—originating, as they do, from the famed palace of Nimrud and its environs."  A sense of irony is called for here about what endangers museum-worthy artifacts in Mesopotamia. Reports, including one just this week at UNESCO, indicate that while mosques, shrines, and religious manuscripts are endangered by ISIS' iconoclasm, antiquities are not for the most part being destroyed. Instead, they are being dug up or pillaged and sold (with tax paid to ISIS). And where do they go? "According to Baghdad Museum director Qais Rashid, 'Assyrian tablets were stolen and suddenly found in European cities.'” 

The European collectors who are buying these artifacts illicit will over the long haul undoubtedly either sell them onto the international market or donate them to museums like the Met, for future exhibitions like this one. 

So Kaylan doesn't have it quite right. What is most endangered is not the small number of museum-worthy antiquities like those displayed at the Met. ISIS is implementing a regulated "licit" market in areas under its control, and permitting the international export of artifacts -- a kind of parodic realization of the market structure advocates from the collecting community drawing on John Merryman's work have called for. Those artifacts are safe. What is endangered, rather is the context of the sites out of which they will be snatched or chiseled, and the knowledge of the past that this context holds.