Are ‘unheard of numbers’ of cultural goods from Syria and Iraq making their way into auction houses in the UK?

Buzzfeed journalist Sheera Frenkel has extended the continuing analysis of How ISIS Became the Richest Terrorist Group in the World. I’m concerned that some unevidenced claims are becoming received wisdom, and that Frenkel’s informants are contributing to that.

‘Unheard of numbers’ of illicit antiquities and unevidenced claims

First, good news for the British archaeological labour market – ethical collectors are hiring teams of antiquities consultants! (Presumably, those teams encompass forensic accountants and business analysts as well as artefact specialists, but still…)

[T]he British archaeologist, who works as part of a team that tries to verify whether antiquities reaching London are legally sourced…. asked not to be named as he did not want to expose his wealthy clients who guard their privacy. “We are also seeing unheard of numbers of stolen goods making their way into auction houses which are considered reputable.”

Are British auction houses handling ‘unheard of numbers’ of illicit antiquities?

Cultural goods without publicly-advertised sources (that would guarantee their licit, or merely pre-conflict, origins) are certainly on the market, though some that lack a publicly-advertised collecting history have one nonetheless.

Bonhams was mistakenly accused of nearly(?) handling Islamic State-looted antiquities in a UNESCO interview with the Sunday Times. (As far as I know, that mistaken accusation has still not been corrected or explained.) Frenkel’s sources avoided the problem of false evidence by simply providing no evidence at all, not even identifying undocumented antiquities for which they want the auction houses to release reassuring documentation.

Are archaeological consultants reporting ‘unheard of numbers’ of illicit antiquities to the police?

Are these archaeologists reporting their discoveries to the police? If so, where are the ‘unheard of numbers’ of withdrawals of objects from auctions? Where are the ‘unheard of numbers’ of prosecutions of illicit possessors, handlers, dealers and buyers? If not, is it because their employers require them not to share their evidence, or because they themselves do not consider it their duty as professionals and as citizens?

Unimaginable claims, contradictory evidence

Frenkel noted,

According to documents recently published by The Guardian, ISIS has managed to net up to $36 million from smuggling plundered artifacts in one region of Syria alone. Experts estimate the total amount of smuggled goods could be worth 10 times that….
ISIS makes money not only from smuggling antiquities like vases, mosaics, and other artifacts looted from the areas they control, but also by levying a tax on traffickers who want to move illegally obtained artifacts through the areas they control.

The apparent evidence on the Islamic State’s smuggling of antiquities and taxing of antiquities smugglers is contradictory, to say the least – technically, even Guardian journalist Martin Chulov’s own statements are contradictory.

I can only reiterate that it is (literally) unimaginable that the Islamic State is making $36m from a 0.2%-0.4% share of the market value of the antiquities that have been looted from one district under its rule (as $36m from a 20% khums tax on looters’ and traffickers’ own 1%-2% share would imply a trade value of $9b-$18b of antiquities from al-Nabk alone).

Recent UNESCO estimate or decades-old media guesstimate?

Frenkel trusted that UNESCO had ‘recently estimated that the global trade in conflict antiquities could be worth more than $2.2 billion’.

First of all (just for clarity), Frenkel mislinked the source for the UNESCO estimate of $2.2b of global illicit antiquities trading; it’s not mentioned in Heather Pringle’s National Geographic article; it’s mentioned in Kathleen Caulderwood’s International Business Times/Business Insider article (and is an estimate for the trade in illicit antiquities from secure places as well as conflict zones). Regardless, that estimate is uselessly out-of-date and possibly entirely unevidenced.

Caulderwood didn’t provide a source for it. I assume she found it in archaeologist Peter Campbell’s 2013 article on illicit antiquities networks (which she cited elsewhere), which cited UNESCO‘s 2005 review of the global cultural economy between 1994 and 2003, which itself provided neither original data nor an original source. (Campbell did caution that ‘black market statistics are notoriously difficult to ascertain‘.)

Based on another UNESCO document, that claim was not an estimate by UNESCO in the first place, but a repetition of the highest guesstimated claim in journalist Geraldine Norman’s 1990 report on antiquities sales (which is no longer online). So it’s a figure from a single twenty-four-year-old newspaper report, which hasn’t even been adjusted for inflation, let alone corroborated with evidence. UNESCO should not be recycling decades-old media guesstimates.


The Islamic State 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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