Illicit Antiquities linked to Islamic terrorists — Who’da thunk it?

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It shouldn’t be news. I men­tioned the pos­sib­il­ity in 2005, and again late last year. When you buy unproven­anced antiquit­ies you don’t know who you’re buy­ing them from.

Now the Ashland Daily Tidings reports on the work by Matthew Bogdanos, which he says shows that the con­nec­tion between the trade in illi­cit antiquit­ies and Islamic insur­gents is undeni­able. Yes, you read that right. It turns out some mem­bers of Al-Qaeda are prone to crim­inal activity.

Despite that fair-play to Antonia Kimbell at the Art Loss Register who said that she’s seen no evid­ence of a dir­ect link. The way the Art Loss Register works is they check a data­base of illi­cit arte­facts. Obviously that means that someone needs to have registered an arte­fact as illi­cit, but that’s not a prob­lem so long as Al-Qaeda remem­ber to fill out the paperwork.

I went to look at David Gill’s blog to fact check the work­ings of the Art Loss Register because Kimbell’s com­ments seemed unfeas­ib­ily mor­onic. I can’t believe someone that cred­u­lous would be able to hold down a job at the Art Loss Register if it worked the way I described it. But it does, and David Gill is also blog­ging this story.

There’s a lot of things I’d like to see hap­pen with the Iraqi occu­pa­tion. One is that I’d like to see UK and US gov­ern­ments sup­port our sol­diers by mak­ing it harder for ‘art col­lect­ors’ to fund the enemy. If you’d like to read more about how you can fund the killing of British and American sol­diers and pick up a nice antiquity into the bar­gain then you can read Looting Matters, Illicit Cultural Property and Safe Corner.

Sympathy for the Art Collectors

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There’s an odd story on the Independent’s web­site today. It seems University College, London may have been hous­ing hun­dreds of arte­facts illeg­ally expor­ted from Iraq. It’s con­tro­ver­sial not because of UCL’s acquis­i­tion of the pots, but for their reac­tion after it was sug­ges­ted that these may be illi­cit materials.

The arte­facts are devil bowls dat­ing from the 6th to 8th cen­tur­ies AD. The idea is that you put an incant­a­tion on them and then tip them upside down to trap an evil spirit. These were loaned by the Norwegian phil­an­throp­ist Martin Schøyen who bought them in good faith from a Jordanian dealer who swore blind that they’d been in his family’s pos­ses­sion for gen­er­a­tions. However not every­one was con­vinced by the story so UCL set up a com­mit­tee to invest­ig­ate where these bowls came from. Schøyen, for reas­ons which aren’t entirely clear, sued for the return of the bowls. The com­mit­tee, it is said, con­cluded that they were prob­ably looted from Iraq. Until then this had been unknown to UCL and there’s no evid­ence that Martin Schøyen had even the faintest ink­ling that they were looted either.

The Independent story makes it very clear that it was an open and shut case, Schøyen had title to the bowls for seven years, there’s no sug­ges­tion that he looted the bowls nor that he was aware that they were looted. The bowls are his. What is caus­ing the fuss is that the Investigating Committee’s report has been with­held as part of an out of court set­tle­ment. It’s all puzz­ling as it would be help­ful to know how these pots were able to be fenced without arous­ing the sus­pi­cions of an upstand­ing cit­izen. It’s a strong argu­ment for tougher reg­u­la­tion for the antiquit­ies trade as it would be ter­rible if it could be proven again that someone else has taken advant­age of Schøyen’s trust.

If you’re won­der­ing what they look like, a quick search on on ebay reveals that you can buy them for around $600 from the Malter Galleries. You can see pho­tos on their site. Again there’s no evid­ence these are know­ingly looted from Iraq. In fact you can’t be cer­tain where they come from at all apart from the Near East. Is that enough to make them a safe purchase?

Freedom is…

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Baghdad Wall
Not Berlin. Photo (cc) this­chan­ginglife.

The Occupation is finally bring­ing the peoples of Iraq together in peace. I’ve tagged a blog post in del​.icio​.us Baghdad res­id­ents protest US-erected divid­ing wall on Annotated Life which notes that Sunnis and Shi’ites are hand in hand in oppos­i­tion to the con­struc­tion of the latest wall across the city. I briefly noted that in another con­text it could pass for an Iron Curtain. With a bit more though I think I was wrong. What has sur­prised me is after think­ing about it some more there may be a grim­mer his­tor­ical com­par­ison.
Continue read­ing

America really really REALLY isn’t the new Rome

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[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Las Vegas Trevi Fountain
Las Vegas Trevi Fountain. Photo by *nathan

I’m run­ning out of emphasis. On Sunday the Independent ran a story US ‘mir­rors Roman Empire’ in Iraq war. It’ll be dis­ap­pear­ing behind a pay wall soon. Potentially this could be a really inter­est­ing story. The Romans made repeated attempts to con­quer the east and failed. For instance is the Coalition of the Willing run­ning into sim­ilar dif­fi­culties in the ter­rain? But the par­al­lel isn’t with the inva­sion of Mesopotamia. Continue read­ing

You too can help fund Islamic terrorists with a few pretty antiquities

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History Carnival ButtonThis has been sat in the drafts pile for a while. I’ve been writ­ing and re-writing because I don’t want to have the post get lost in the rights or wrongs of the occu­pa­tion of Iraq. I simply wanted to high­light a ser­i­ous prob­lem. I’ve moved it up because Cronaca notes the Guardian story that illi­cit excav­a­tion of antiquit­ies may be help­ing fund ter­ror­ists in Iraq and sug­gests tak­ing the story with a moun­tain of salt. I’m not so dis­missive. The pic­ture below shows just one site.

Iraq, Cultural Heritage Sites
Umma, a Sumerian cap­tial city, trashed. The smooth bits are the unex­cav­ated patches. Photo from the WMF.

The entire coun­try of Iraq has been placed on the World Monument Watch 100 most endangered sites list. This fol­lows con­tin­ued law­less­ness and whole­sale loot­ing of ancient sites in the country.

This isn’t any­thing new. SAFE records a ongo­ing fail­ure to act to pre­serve Iraqi her­it­age. The prob­lem con­tin­ues. There are now large areas of the coun­try where illi­cit excav­at­ors can oper­ate. Control is now so weak that items can be stolen to order and shipped to Saudi Arabia and else­where. So far the loot appears to be stored but it should in time be pos­sible to fence the goods on the antiquit­ies market.

Now obvi­ously I’d like to make clear to Christie’s, Sotheby’s and espe­cially their law­yers that I’m not sug­gest­ing for one moment that they’d sell goods if an Islamic fun­da­ment­al­ist turned up on their door­step with a sack of loot. However I’m not totally con­vinced that their checks are suf­fi­cient to stop them from unwit­tingly selling illi­cit mater­ial. I don’t make this charge lightly. Below is a dia­gram from Ian Stead’s book on the Salisbury Hoard. The Salisbury Hoard was illeg­ally excav­ated in the UK and fenced through the London mar­ket. See how many names you recognise.

Diagram of how illicit antiquities were fenced through the London Antiquities trade
Diagram of trade of illi­cit mater­ial. From Ian Steads’s Salisbury Hoard

It’s hard to argue that some­thing isn’t very wrong in the antiquit­ies mar­ket, when illi­cit goods can be passed around like that. It’s amaz­ing the British Museum was even able to spot some­thing was amiss. It’s also worth not­ing that all the antiquit­ies going over­seas should have had export licences. I don’t know how many did. It must drive hon­est antiquit­ies deal­ers mad with rage. I’m amazed you don’t hear the major auc­tion houses demand­ing a crack­down on the people who bring their trade into disrepute.

It’s safe to assume that there is the demand and the means of sup­ply­ing it once the mater­ial is out of Iraq.

Now all we have to do work out sort of per­son is able to work in the remote parts of Iraq where there’s a bunch armed vicious Islamic fun­da­ment­al­ists run­ning amok. If we could also work out some sort of con­nec­tion between the pre­sumed first link in the antiquit­ies chain, deal­ers in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and the for­eign insur­gents in Iraq. Badgerminor at Orbis Quintus has some idea where they might come from.

I don’t think you need a moun­tain of salt. The one ray of sun­shine is the people who go and do this are the ones who get ripped off. Buy buy­ing antiquit­ies you could well be help­ing fund ter­ror­ists, but by far the lar­ger amount of profit will be siphoned off into organ­ised crime. So that’s alright.

Links you might be inter­ested in:
SAFE: Saving Antiquities for Everyone
The Illicit Antiquities Research Centre