Wednesday, October 22, 2014

STOP THE LOOTING OF ANTIQUITIES BY FOUNDER OF INTERNATIONAL ART THEFT INVESTIGATIONS PROGRAM

James McAndrew reporting: a former senior special agent and founder of the international art theft investigations program at the Department of Homeland Security, is a forensic specialist. I remember helping the Iraqi coalition government wrestle with archaeological site destruction and prolific looting during and after the second Gulf war. The U.S. Customs Service had special agents in Iraq while fighting was ongoing to protect and recover antiquities, as well as collect intelligence on looting and destruction.

Too much attention is given to the U.S. and Europe, countries that are not the root of the problem or fueling it. At the same time, I developed a program for the Department of Homeland Security, which sought to investigate, return and recover stolen and looted works of art and antiquity if they crossed over the U.S. border. The program was, and is, extremely successful, with more than 400 specially trained D.H.S. agents to date.

But is it enough to stop looting? I don’t think so. Our borders were never flooded with looted Iraqi antiquities during or after the war. They aren’t flooded with looted Syrian antiquities now. Sadly, many looted items remain in the Middle East or are simply destroyed. Looters do not ask for high prices for the goods they sell; they are trying to make ends meet or profit easily. Too much attention is given to what the world perceives as “market countries” (i.e. the U.S. and Europe) that are not the root of the problem, nor are they fueling it.

Other factors drive the archaeological site destruction in Syria and Iraq, like the extremist ideology against idolatry or the discourse between religions. It’s beyond comprehension to think an ISIS fighter is consumed with the thought of the potential for profit of a religious or archaeological item sold to a resident of Park Avenue. The militants have a different agenda.

The United Nations, the International Council of Museums and Interpol are more respected by foreign heads of state and cultural ministries than the U.S. and coalition forces are when it comes to this problem. The most effective way to stop looting is through international pressure led by Syria’s neighboring countries, including the use of sanctions specifically for the lack of effort in protecting the cultural infrastructure within Syria's borders. The U.S. and its allies should support any effort in an advisory role, but the crisis is on the ground, not the political sphere.

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