September 30, 2015

Highlights from “Conflict Antiquities: Forging a Public/Private Response to Save Iraq and Syria's Endangered Cultural Heritage”


In an awareness raising initiative to highlight the ongoing upheaval and destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria, the Metropolitan Museum and the US State Department jointly held an event yesterday titled, “Conflict Antiquities: Forging a Public/Private Response to Save Iraq and Syria's Endangered Cultural Heritage” in New York City.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted one example of a looted and not destroyed antiquity that is known to have passed through the hands of ISIS operatives.  The object, a 9th century B.C.E: ivory plaque, decorated with a procession of Assyrian officials and foreign tributaries was excavated at the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud by a team from the British Museum in 1989.  The plaque was recovered by U.S. special operations forces during a tactical raid that killed a key ISIS commander, identified by his nom de guerre Abu Sayyaf, last May in al-Omar in eastern Syria.

This ancient object is known to have been looted from the Mosul Museum (Iraq) and underscores what many following illicit antiquities trafficking have already concluded, that the Islamic State not only destroys objects it find religiously offensive or useful for its public propaganda but also has been known to plunder antiquities for some level of financial gain or as war booty when opportunity knocks. 

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Keller added that "newly declassified evidence" seized when American Delta Force commandos took out Abu Sayyaf and twelve other Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters included receipts collecting taxes from looters as well as written edicts that threatened punishment for those caught looting antiquities without formal Islamic State permission. 

While some of this information appears to be newly declassified, conflict antiquities archaeologist Dr. Sam Hardy released a lengthy analysis of the heritage hoard seized during the Abu Sayyaf raid when details of the cache were released by the State Department in July 2015.  That analysis has been available for two months and can be reviewed here.  

Robert A. Hartung, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Diplomatic Affairs announced a new initiative within their "Rewards for Justice" program,  an incentive established by the 1984 Act to Combat International Terrorism, Public Law 98-533.   The program is administered by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and announced yesterday that they are set to 


Hartuung emphasized that the Rewards for Justice incentive is not a buyback program, but reward for help in identifying and catching smugglers linked to ISIS.  At present this reward appears to be restricted solely to the Islamic State and does not appear to be not available for information leading to the disruption of the sale of illicit antiquities by other armed groups or other non political traffickers profiting from the absence of controls during the ongoing war.

Another panel discussion highlighted the work of the US government-sponsored organisation currently tasked with ground-based observations of cultural heritage incidents in Syria and Iraq. Michael Danti, from the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), who’s group has just been allocated a second tranche of federal funding totalling $900,000 in an extension to their previous $600,000 one-year cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of State spoke on his organization's work continues to document the current condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria and portions of Iraq.   While useful in its own right, ASOR's federally-funded initiative often draws upon the research and analysis of other conflict antiquities researchers, some of whom consistently work below the funding radar, within this sector of expertise on a voluntary basis and without the benefit of funding from governmental or academic bodies. 

Wolfgang Weber, ‎Head of Global Regulatory Policy at eBay, spoke about the due diligence of the web-based auction powerhouse that handles 800 million online auctions a year.  Sales of illicit objects online are a known and ongoing problem where illicit antiquities are concerned and attempts to prevent such illegal activity via large auction sites such as eBay are a work in progress.  Judging from their ability to monitor other areas of illicit activity, many believe that eBay's efforts in policing their online marketplace have largely been ineffective or fallen short of desirable outcomes. 

Weber's presence on the panel underscores that the internet is being harnessed to provide valuable tools for traffickers, who exploit weaknesses in online marketplaces, making the illicit trafficking of cultural property faster, easier and ever more difficult for authorities to fight.

During his presentation Weber stated that his team's task is to identify illegal items & remove them from the online marketplace but he added that eBay does not have the capacity to check individual items, only their sales conduit.  This means that the auction site's contribution to stopping illegal sales is limited to preventing sellers from listing items of concern or in some cases removing listings before a sale can be made.  

eBay relies heavily on key word searches and external reports by individuals who inform the company when an object has been identified which is of dubious origin or legality.  Private citizens and researchers connected to small NGOs are hampered from stopping the online trafficking of items as they can only flag up what’s known to be illegal or looks that way to eBay. Those monitoring the online auction site cannot procure hard evidence by buying the actual contraband as they would then be in violation of national and international laws and treaties themselves. 

Lev Kubiak, ICE Assistant Director for International Operations spoke on US Immigration and Customs Enforcements roll in cultural property, art and antiquities investigations highlighting their 
"Operation Mummy’s Curse,” a five-year investigation carried out by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) that targeting an international criminal network that illegally smuggled and imported more than 7,000 cultural items from around the world and resulted in at least two convictions. 

Sharon Cott, Senior Vice President, Secretary & General Counsel at the Metropolitan Museum, spoke in support of AAMD member museums who apply ethical principles to safeguard against purchasing blood antiquities and to the roll of museums should play as safe havens for objects during times of unrest. 

Dr. Markus Hilgert, a professor of ancient Near-Eastern studies and Director of the Vorderasiatisches Museum im Pergamonmuseum - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin spoke about his newly funded trans-disciplinary research project on the illicit trade, ILLICID, with partners in customs and law enforcement, the German Federal Foreign Office, Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, German Commission for UNESCO and ICOM. The ILLICID project is financed via the German Federal Ministry for Education.

Hilgert stressed the need to identify and develop criminological methods for in-depth analysis of illicit trafficking, stressing the need for more information on object types, turnover, networks, and various modus operandi.  He further underscored the need to adequately assess the various dimensions of money laundering and terrorist financing that may be being derived from heritage trafficking.  In conclusion he emphasized that trafficking is the number one threat to the world's cultural patrimony - more than destruction. 

ARCA would like to thank all those who were present in the room and who live-tweeted the conference and took detailed notes allowing those of us in Europe to listen in, even if it was way past our bedtimes.

A list of those folks who lent a hand are:
@cwjones89
@vagabondslog
@keridouglas
@AWOL_tweets
@mokersel
@adreinhard
@mokersel
@HeritageAtState
@ChasingAphrodit
@metmuseum
@jstpwalsh
@LarryCoben
@InventorLogan

There was a lot of ground covered and more still that needs to be covered.

by Lynda Albertson

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