The lure of antiquities in the New York Times and the trap of poor evidence in war zones

The New York Times has explored the lure of antiquities. I don’t want the evidence to be misunderstood.

Do you feel lucky?

To protect themselves as much as anyone else, dealers and collectors should ask themselves: am I complicit, or being made complicit, in a crime that perpetuates poverty and corruption, undermines shared life, ravages the vulnerable communities whose culture I believe I am preserving and valorising? When the antiquities come from places that have suffered violence, that question becomes acute: am I funding war-making, communal cleansing or genocide?

Sellers may try to reassure buyers by dismissing any concern about a lack of papers, but buyers should ponder: when there is such a long paper trail for the licensed antiquities trade, when traders have financial as well as ethical incentives to preserve that paper trail, why is it so often missing? Just how many files can be lost in floods?

Certain reports are poorly evidenced, but the reliable evidence is worrying enough

The NYT’s reporter, Scott Reyburn, quoted me,

“There’s a huge amount coming out of Syria…. The rebels have teams dedicated to looting and refugees are using portable statuettes, pots and glass as an international currency”…. However, Mr. Hardy has seen no reliable evidence to support recent claims in the Western media that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is selling antiquities to procure arms.

Reyburn was professional in his dealings with me, and I did say all of those things, but I also said other things, and I don’t want the evidence to be misunderstood.

As I noted in my most recent review of claims for which there was no concrete proof, there is enough evidence to suggest that everybody’s involved somehowAssadist forces, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) (the secularist, democratic men-with-guns), Islamist/jihadist militias, seemingly even foreign militaries (as well as, of course, non-combatant mafias).

$36m?

Based on off-the-record briefings regarding still-unpublished intelligence, it was reported first that the Islamic State had made $36m by smuggling antiquities from one district of Syria, then that it had made $36m by smuggling antiquities from across Syria; either way, it would have had to smuggle unimaginable quantities or control the highly profitable market end of the supply line.

Bonhams?

It was mistakenly reported that the Islamic State was running a looting and trafficking supply line, based on a case that happened before the Islamic State existed.

Islamic taxation (Khums)

It was reported that the Islamic State oversaw illicit excavations, destroyed large antiquities, and taxed the sale and transport of portable antiquities. Yet, as I added to my review, if the Islamic State is imposing a “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” model on its producers, how can it be supplying elites and making massive profits?

Contradictory poorly-evidenced reports

If the Islamic State made $36m from antiquities smuggling (whether from one town or its entire territory), and it only took a 20% cut from the income of the looters and low-level smugglers, who themselves only got 1% or 2% of goods’ market value, then it would have overseen the looting of $9b-$18b of antiquities. And it only permitted the sale of small, low-value goods. And it’s only one of the paramilitaries…

Something is not right. Should dealers and collectors be reassured by the unreliability of these contradictory claims? Would they be reassured if they found out that they had funded the Islamic State through its taxation of sales of antiquities, instead of through its sale of antiquities? Would they be reassured if they found out that they had funded the al-Nusra Front instead of the Islamic State, or the Assad regime instead of the Islamic State?

Notes

The Islamic State (IS) has also been known as the Caliphate, Da’ash, Da’esh, Da’ish, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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