HUGE INCREASE IN ANTIQUITIES DUE TO LOOTING IN SYRIA AND IRAQ--DUE DILIGENCE MUST APPLY FOR ART COLLECTORS AND DEALERS
The western appetite for antiquities has always been a motivation for others to loot them. The same individuals who pride themselves on their appreciation of cultural heritage create situations that lead to the pillage of ancient sites, as the trade in illicit artifacts is fueled by demand. Objects are placed on the market because they have economic value. Western buyers purchase antiquities at depressed prices after they have passed hands from looters, smugglers or middlemen, creating greater incentive to loot and smuggle. In fact, there is evidence that Islamic State acts with the market in mind.
Tellingly, there has been a vast increase in supply of antiquities from Syria and Iraq. According to US customs, there has been a 145% increase in imports of Syrian cultural property and a 61% increase in imports of Iraqi cultural property between 2011 and 2013, suggesting that illicit trade is piggybacking on the legal trade. Government officials opine that antiquities have become a more significant revenue source for Isis as the conflict has progressed.
Buyers are either unaware of the damage caused by the black market, feel callously unconcerned that their purchases lead to destruction, or justify their actions believing that they are “saving” objects from conflict zones. (This reasoning is facetious because removing antiquities from their historical contexts and into private collections without proper archaeological research contributes nothing to the historical record or the public.) Thus, one way to reduce demand for loot is through education. Some collectors are uninformed about the buyer’s instrumental role in the looting mechanism and the harm that their purchases create.
Art collectors and art dealers must apply robust due diligence; purchasers should buy objects from reputable sources, investigate an object’s history and procure all documentation, including all requisite licenses and customs forms. If these documents are unavailable, then buyers must refrain from the acquisition. The provenience or “find spot” of objects from politically torn nations should act as a red flag. With increased education and available information, it becomes difficult for buyers to claim that they lacked information about the illegal origin of an object. In fact, there is ample information available to art buyers through databases, government warnings, art consultants, social media and educational resources. Just as investors complete due diligence before entering business transactions, so should art buyers bear the responsibility for their purchases. Collectors should confer with art lawyers and art market professionals to investigate a dealer’s reputation, professional standing and prior lawsuits involving their business practices. Due diligence encourages legitimate and responsible trade.
Quite simply, Isis profits from loot and regulates black market profits. During a raid on one of Isis’s leaders, armed forces discovered extensive records concerning plundered goods. Through their findings it is clear that the objects come to the west. The FBI issued a warning that looted artefacts are on the market. The notice is supported by first-hand accounts of Syrian objects being bought and sold. Impoverished, unemployed locals loot objects to support and feed their families, paying Isis a tax on artefacts leaving its territory. Turkey commonly serves as the gateway, and the objects reach the international market quickly. The works enter commerce surreptitiously, often sold online via photos or video chat, with items even appearing on eBay. Undercover investigations have confirmed that illicit goods have reached buyers in Europe and the US; government officials have evidence that loot appears on the markets in New York and London.
American and European legislators are tackling the problem by proposing laws to reduce the influx of plundered antiquities. Yet even with targeted laws, unscrupulous buyers will purchase loot. Collectors should be made aware that there are dangers other than legal penalties. Illicit goods are problematic from an investment perspective. At resale, lower prices are generated for objects without clear ownership histories. Provenance (an object’s ownership history) is considered during the valuation process, and pieces with strong provenance typically sell for significantly higher prices. If a work is revealed to be looted, there may be a cloud on its title that vitiates its value and makes the work vulnerable to seizure. Buyers may be rightfully haunted by their purchases for years to come.