Syria/Lebanon: antiquities-for-arms – have fakes been added to the real deal ‘or is the whole thing staged’?

Paul Barford ‘note[d] the large (I’d guess fake) “Syracuse dekas”‘ in a Russia Today (RT) video report on Relics for Rifles and rightly asked: ‘What’s going on? Have they been added to a real haul of dugups to make it more photogenic? Or is the whole thing staged?‘ It’s a good question and a difficult one.

When the Sunday Times‘ Hala Jaber and George Arbuthnott investigated the Syrian-Lebanese antiquities-for-arms trade, they were offered fakes as well as loot. So, the presence of fakes in a collection of antiquities would not automatically, completely undermine all trust in anything that was said.

However, the half-dissolved vase and other material does not appear to be worth the $3,000-$6,000 that the smuggler expected. At least the smuggler’s estimate of the cost of a Kalashnikov was about right as, in Lebanon at the moment, an AK-47 sells for between $1,300 and $1,900.

Lebanese(?) antiquities dealer Abu Ghsein said that he ‘receive[d] merchants from Turkey, from Jordan, from the UK, France and also some Syrian merchants’, which is perfectly plausible, but he also claimed that ‘these antiquities smuggled from Syria now form up to 50 percent of the European markets’, which may or may not be true, but which has no basis in evidence whatsoever.

So, it is possible that this report was completely staged, but it is possible that RT simply marshalled the convenient evidence to make its desired point, in a way that is less subtle than but ultimately similar to that of American efforts to shape the political narrative.

How terrorism is financed with Syrian antiquities

In contrast (and in contrast with much other media too), German broadcaster North German Radio (Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR)) and broadcasting partner Das Erste have spent a lot of time and effort (and, thus, money), over the course of four years, on an investigation into the illicit antiquities trade. Susanne Birkner, Volkmar Kabisch, Esther Saoub, Andreas Wolter and their colleagues behind the scenes can only be commended.

They gave time to Syrian archaeologist Maamoun Abdelkarim and Syrian cultural heritage activist Cheikhmous Ali; German archaeologist Markus Hilgert and German (archaeologist and) illicit antiquities researcher Michael Müller-Karpe; Iraqi military spokesperson Qassim Atta; and German police officer Sylvelie Karfeld. It is notable that, unlike certain other authorities, German police have understood the benefit of transparency and cooperation.

They explained how art sales fund arms purchases, how such trading funds terrorism and that the international community is doing too little to help. They discussed how illicit trading is spreading (and blighting Germany in particular), despite the fact that blood clings to illicit antiquities, yet they also showed that Germany is reforming its law and restricting its trade for the public good.

(They and others also summarised how the conflict antiquities trade functions and how the Islamic State is increasingly taking over Iraqi and Syrian antiquities trafficking.)

I hope to discuss their work in detail in the future, but I expect something (separate but complementary) will come out on Monday.

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