In March 2016, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, successfully retook the ancient city of Palmyra after ISIS had captured it a year before.
Over the course of the Syrian civil war, Palmyra has experienced looting and various forms of structural damage. By April 2012, it was reported that there had been “a lot of looting and clandestine digging.” During the course of the conflict, Palmyra has been looted by rebels and the regime, as well as by ISIS. Concern for the site’s integrity grew substantially, however, after ISIS launched an attack on May 13, 2015 against the modern town of Tadmur, which is located next to Palmyra. As ISIS forces came closer to the historical site, Syrian curators evacuated a number of artifacts from the Palmyra museum and transported them to Damascus.
On May 12, 2015, ISIS captured Palmyra. On August 18, the group beheaded Palmyra’s retired antiquities chief, Khaled al-Asaad, after he refused to reveal where valuable artifacts had been moved for safekeeping.
From August to October 2015, ISIS destroyed a number of structures at Palmyra, including the Temple of Baalshamin; the Temple of Bel; three of Palmyra’s best preserved tower tombs, including the sandstone tower tomb, the Tower of Elahbel; the Roman ornamental Arch of Triumph; and the ancient statue, Lion of Al-lāt.
Palmyra’s destruction has raised a number of important questions about the fate of antiquities in times of war, including how to protect artifacts in war zones, how trafficking of artifacts can be stopped, and how criminal organizations profit from this trafficking.
These and other questions are tackled in Conflict Antiquities, a blog run by Dr. Samuel Hardy. As described in Dr. Hardy’s blog, “[c]onflict antiquities are ancient artefacts that are looted, smuggled and/or sold to fund military or paramilitary activity. On top of the immediate violence, this plunder has a devastating impact on communities’ self-understanding, development and peace.”
Dr. Hardy, who is an adjunct faculty member at the American University of Rome, is a specialist in the trade of illicit antiquities and the destruction of community and cultural property, with experience in archaeological, historical, and ethnographic research. Last year, he published an open-source analysis of looting-to-order and theft-to-order of cultural property around the world. Dr. Hardy recently conducted a research study on illicit trafficking for UNESCO.
Muftah sat down with Dr. Hardy to ask him a few questions about the illicit trade of antiquities from Syria, across the Middle East, and beyond.
Ruslan Trad: In one of your blog posts, you wrote about “theft-to-order.” Can you explain what this?
Samuel Hardy: The existence of theft-to-order cultural property has long been denied. But it is a perfectly ordinary crime. All sorts of cultural commodities, from ivory to fossils, are stolen to fulfill orders from buyers. Theft-to-order can happen in many different ways and can even be part of transnational organized criminal networks. In 1969, Francesco Marino Mannoia, a heroin trafficker for the Italian mafia organization, Cosa Nostra, committed a theft-to-order of The Nativity with Saint Peter and Saint Lawrence by Caravaggio. During military rule in Argentina, the junta paid some of its assassins by giving them permission to steal cultural property in the country.
To the best of your knowledge, about how many people are engaged in the illegal trafficking of artifacts and other valuables from the Middle East?
I don’t think anyone knows how many people are involved in trafficking in the Middle East. Trafficking enterprises range from individual entrepreneurs to organized criminals and armed groups. Trafficking was already a serious problem before the crisis (crises) erupted in 2011, even in relatively stable countries such as Jordan. Satellite imagery of archaeological sites in crisis zones, such as Egypt and Syria, show how intensive and extensive the problem has become since then.
What are the main ways artifacts have been acquired? How many people usually participate in a single operation?
Some of the operations are very small, ranging from one to three people. Some paramilitary groups have claimed to employ “teams” of looters. They steal directly from archaeological sites or loot objects from museums, galleries, and collections. Sometimes, those objects are sold and resold many times as they travel through local and regional markets to the global market. Through this process, these objects are laundered and made to appear legal. Sometimes, they are sold online, then sent directly to the buyer or delivered in person.
How is the trafficking network related to ISIS? Are there trafficking routes in Syria that are outside ISIS’s control?
According to testimony from eyewitnesses and criminals, all of the parties to the Syrian conflict are parties to the illicit trade of antiquities. It is possible that many of these traffickers are “professional” criminals, who have been active since before the conflict. At the very least, armed groups appear to be “taxing” these criminals in their territory, if not handling or even excavating antiquities themselves.
Who are the main people and institutions that profit from the illegal traffic of Near Eastern artifacts?
In terms of money, state forces, para-state forces, anti-state forces, organized criminals, and entrepreneurs are all profiting. Still, most of the money is typically made by white-collar criminals in countries with the largest markets – the United States, the UK, and other countries where Near Eastern antiquities are collected.
Is it possible museums and auction houses are working with the traffickers?
There is no evidence that organizations like museums and auction houses are knowingly working with armed groups. Nonetheless, in December 2014, Egyptian antiquities, which had been looted during the unrest in that country, reached an auction house in Australia. As already mentioned, it is clear that armed groups in Syria are selling directly to collectors and dealers, and that international buyers are paying these groups for access to archaeological sites. So, some actors in the international market are definitely working with those who are trafficking in antiquities. Ultimately, if no one were buying, then no one would be looting.
How is money circulating in these trafficking networks? How much do participants profit from these operations?
Reports have confirmed that looters and source-end dealers receive only 1-2% of the market value for looted antiquities. If they have direct access to market-end dealers and collectors, then they can get 50-67% of the market price. Certain antiquities that have been looted from Syria have been put on sale anywhere from $30,000 to $200,000. So, realistically, the total value of looted assets is in the millions. Many objects will, however, be sold for hundreds or just tens of dollars and many others will be stashed to be sold quietly later. Unfortunately, we simply do not know how much money is being made.
How does the traffic in antiquities and other valuables contribute to the “budget” of local militants and terrorist groups like ISIS?
Criminals have testified that armed groups are swapping antiquities for arms or selling antiquities, then buying arms. But evidence from other conflicts shows that fighters may buy other equipment (such as clothing) and that the money can be used to pay for a whole host of activities an organization engages in.
What are the main measures local governments and international agencies, like UNESCO, are using to counter trafficking networks in the Middle East and other regions from which antiques are stolen?
State agencies, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others (businesses, etc.) are doing everything from trying to identify illicit dealers (for example, Facebook shut down a page that was selling Syrian antiquities) to trying to educate collectors so that they avoid purchasing looted objects. Neighboring countries, in particular, have made serious efforts at policing the trafficking of antiquities. Some market countries, such as Germany, are also in the process of making fundamental legal reform to better regulate the antiquities market, so that antiquities can only get import licenses if they have export licenses.