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.