Despite the headline, the Times has not presented any evidence of Islamic State-looted antiquities on eBay.
Unfortunate sub-editing is always a risk. Hugh Tomlinson has suffered it before, but this time it’s worse – especially because the prominence of his article’s recyclers has spread the headline far and wide. Tomlinson is sensible and blunt about sensationalist statements that concern the Islamic State, so I’m confident that he was (literally) thousands of miles away from the Times’ headline. He was kind enough to discuss the article the morning after it was published, so I know a bit about its background, but the rest is my comment.
It was written as a review of the problem of antiquities trafficking and illicit sale, which has been worsened by the rise of the Islamic State. However, it repeatedly explained the functioning of the trade by reviewing how “the Islamists”, “the jihadists”, “Isis” did things. It did not explicitly identify any non-jihadist paramilitary looters and traffickers.
As the International Business Times explained, with quotes of Syrian archaeologist Amr Al Azm that they appear to have lifted from Mother Jones without attribution, ‘Isis moved into a region and found a preexisting situation…. They exploited it, accelerated it, intensified it, but they did not start it.’ (And it has continued under the other armed forces as well.)
Worse, the Times’ article was headlined antiquities looted by Islamic State turn up on eBay; even worse, it was recycled by other media that churned out versions of the article that reflected the headline instead of the text. And the article’s focus on jihadist looters is particularly problematic with regard to its central example.
Reaffirming expectations, my (now deleted, explicitly sight unseen) tweet of the headlined positive evidence – ‘Not read yet @hughtomlinson @thetimes: Antiquities looted by Islamic State turn up on #eBay’ – was shared much more often and much more widely in the hours that it was online than my tweet of the lack of evidence for the headline has been in the days that it has been there.
Tomlinson has also suffered from poorly phrased or simply mistaken official statements regarding the Islamic State’s destruction at the archaeological sites of Nimrud, Hatra and Khorsabad. His mention of its ‘scorched earth frenzy of looting and destruction’ is clearly a product of Iraq’s and UNESCO’s reports of the ‘bulldozing’ and ‘destruction’ of those sites, which span kilometres.
While the the attacks on and acts of destruction at the sites have apparently been confirmed, Antiquities Board head Qais Rasheed has since somewhat clarified: ‘they bulldozed sites at Nimrud and Hatra. What we don’t have is information about the size of the area which has been razed.’ In other words, parts of the sites have been destroyed; stretches of the places have been bulldozed.
The fact that multiple officials have affirmed that the destroyed objects at Mosul Museum were ancient artefacts and that multiple other officials have affirmed that they were modern replicas should be instructive in the use of unevidenced official statements. For the avoidance of doubt, in that case, most of the destroyed objects were ancient artefacts.
Islamic State-looted antiquities in Europe?
There have been reports of professional theft under the Islamic State since last year (and in Iraq for far longer). The traffic of antiquities from Islamic State territory in Syria to Europe has been affirmed by everyone from Syrian archaeologists and Lebanese police to international cultural property recovery consultants.
Still, Tomlinson reported that ‘Assyrian tablets looted from the tomb of the Prophet Jonah before it was blown up by Isis in July were later recovered in Europe’. I believe that he was wrong-footed by an ABC News report that conflated the destruction of the tomb-mosque of Jonah/Yunus in Mosul on the 24th of July 2014, rumours of the looting of the tomb before its destruction, the existence of Assyrian archaeological remains underneath the site and rumours of the looting of Assyrian archaeological remains at Nimrud (outside Mosul) on the 12th of July 2014.
In July, for instance, IS rigged the Nabi Yunus shrine in the northern city of Mosul – revered by both Muslims and Christians as the tomb of Prophet Jonah – with explosives and blew it up….
“There were explosions that destroyed buildings dating back to the Assyrian era,” Baghdad museum director Qais Rashid said according to a translation from Arabic into English, referring to the once powerful, ancient empire.
“Assyrian tablets were stolen and were suddenly found in European cities,” he added, warning that the sale of such artefacts was being used to “finance terrorism”.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MTA), Qassem Taher al-Sudani, said that a ‘large mural‘ and possibly other antiquities had been ‘stolen by ISIL from the archaeological site of Nimrud’ (which is also known as Kalhu), while National Museum Director Qais Hussein Rasheed said that ‘Assyrian tablets’ from the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II in Kalhu had been ‘stolen and found in European cities’, including a “tablet of a winged bull” that had been ‘cut up and sold piecemeal’. As Paul Barford explained at the time, the “murals”/”tablets” were reliefs (carved panels) – and the reports appear to remain unevidenced.
Conflict antiquities on eBay?
Myriads of objects of ‘murky’ legality are available via eBay and other online auctioneers and traders. It is inevitable that some antiquities looted, trafficked, taxed or otherwise racketeered by the Islamic State – as well as by other jihadist militias, the Free Syrian Army, other rebel factions, the Assad regime, even foreign forces – will turn up on eBay. Amr Al Azm has seen coins on eBay, which he suspects had been smuggled from Syria, because they were still encrusted with soil from their recent extraction.
As I’ve said before, “hi-tech” is now basic tech. According to European police, the Islamic State is known to deal with antiquities buyers over somewhat encrypted services such as WhatsApp; at least for other illicit trades, IS operatives openly use Kik; other ‘militants’ – probably of Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN/JN) – arrange to smuggle buyers into Syria or antiquities out of Syria via Skype; and FSA rebels, too, use smartphones for their illicit antiquities dealings. So, if they have stopped selling over eBay, they have not stopped selling; they have merely established more secure alternatives. And it does not mean that low-end dealers who sell somewhat laundered antiquities have stopped selling via eBay or other online auctioneers and traders.
However, albeit due to minimal antiquities policing and the difficulty of prosecution rather than universally legal behaviour (and perhaps due to anti-paramilitary policing that withholds evidence concerning ongoing operations), there have been no documented cases of paramilitary-financing sales of antiquities over eBay. If none are showing up on eBay anymore, it is only because – as archaeologist-turned-antiquities dealer Christoph Leon has observed – they are being sold ‘under the counter [unter der Ladentheke]’ instead.
Conflict antiquities from Apamea on eBay?
When Morag Kersel saw the Daily Mail’s churned version of the Times’ original story, she wondered ‘how the author [had made] the link between ISIS, eBay and these particular coins’. That may have been because the Mail’s author, Jack Crone, did not copy-and-paste Erin Thompson’s cautious observation to Hugh Tomlinson that it was ‘extremely difficult to tell if individual items were looted recently, [were looted] long ago or come from a legitimate source’.
Indeed, Discordia tweeted that the ‘coin in the picture [was] not original’ anyway, but rather ‘a replica‘; ‘the small holes on the surface’ suggested that ‘it was poured, not punched as an original’ would have been. There is no secure evidence that the coin is not ancient; and, if it is not ancient, there is no evidence that the seller knew that it was not ancient when they sold it. After all, they sold it with a certificate (and guarantee) of authenticity from a professional numismatist (from the seller?).
Continuing their general discussion of the black market, Erin Thompson provided the example of supposedly Apamea-minted antiquities on eBay. It is difficult to know for sure – particularly when objects may have been made in one place and deposited in another – but, ‘when you see items from Apamea being sold on eBay, it gives a good indication that something is up.’ (I don’t know how the International Business Times recycled the material, but they rendered Apamea as “Papamoa”.)
Tomlinson evidently read up and explained: ‘Five of six Unesco heritage sites in Syria have been seriously damaged by looting. At Apamea, in western Syria, entire Roman mosaics [have been] ripped up by bulldozer. It is claimed that Isis takes requests from dealers in neighbouring countries, looting and delivering antiquities to order.’
The Times illustrated its piece with an image that was captioned, ‘Stolen coins are among the plundered artefacts going on the open market’. It was not a stock image of a coin. It was an image of a specific coin that was on the open market – a coin from Apamea on eBay, which was on offer at a reduced price (down from $106.40 to $85.12).
It appeared to lend credence to Thompson’s claim that the ‘market for coins has fallen. You can buy ancient coins minted in Syria for between $20 and $100 online’ and to the article’s consequent claim that the ‘volume of artefacts flooding out of the conflict zone is so great that it has forced down prices in some sectors of the market’. Yet Paul Barford has stated that ‘the market is not “depressed”, it has always been that way’.
Islamic State-looted antiquities from Apamea on eBay?
The Mail’s link between the coins on eBay and the Islamic State was due to an even braver editing decision. It followed the Times’ headline to the letter and stitched that coin – and another from the same seller – into the body of its piece.
Jewellery, ceramics and coins plundered from museums within ISIS territory are known to pass between criminal gangs before turning up in Gulf States and later appearing on trading websites.
Two coins from Apamea, in western Syria, which date back to Ancient Greece have appeared on eBay with price tags of £57 and £90.
Its captions for the two screenshots of the first coin were: ‘Selling on eBay: Historical artefacts believed to have been looted by ISIS, such as this coin of Apamea dating back to the time of Ancient Greece, are beginning to appear on eBay’; and ‘Spoils of war: Small coins such as these are easy to smuggle across borders to criminal gangs in neighbouring countries. Above, the artefact is advertised on eBay’.
While readers might see “small coins such as these” as an illustration of a kind of object and its ease of transport, it is very difficult to see “historical artefacts believed to have been looted by ISIS, such as this coin” as anything other than a statement that this coin is believed to have been looted by ISIS.
The International Business Times did likewise – because it mashed up the Mail’s version with the Times’ report. Although it repeated Thompson’s caution, it also declared: ‘Ancient artefacts believed to be looted by Islamic State – such as this coin from Apamea, Syria, from around 500BC – are popping up on eBay…. Two coins from Apamea, western Syria, dating back to ancient Greece have appeared on eBay, priced at £57 and £90 ($84 to $133).’
I’m not alone in thinking that these reports could leave the publishers at risk of a libel claim, as long as ‘the dealer can come up with documentation that will stand up in court as proof that the claim is false’. Is that the only way that publishers will be convinced to ensure more responsible reporting?
Conflict antiquities from Apamea don’t finance the Islamic State – they finance the Assad regime
As evidenced by satellite images that were identified by Ignacio Arce, and described by Jesse Casana and Mitra Panahipour, ‘about two-thirds of Apamea was intensely looted‘ between the 20th of July 2011 and the 4th of April 2012. As Emma Cunliffe observed, the site was extensively looted before the place was fortified. Still, it is about 35km west of regime-controlled Morek and 35km north-west of regime-controlled Muhradah. As far as I can tell, it has always been under regime control. Unless they are trafficked through its territory, conflict antiquities from Apamea do not (also) finance the Islamic State – they finance the Assad regime.