Antiquities, looted from Syria’s Palmyra Museum, seized while for sale in eastern Turkey? No.

Update (30th November 2015): the objects were ‘pretty crude fakes‘ that seem to have been advertised as conflict antiquities from Palmyra Museum.

Original post

I think I’ve found the little information that exists – (sometimes very similar) reports from İhlas News Agency (İHA) in Milliyet (via Erman Ertuğrul in Arkeofili), Doğan News Agency (DHA) in Bugün, Daily Sabah and the Doğan News Agency (DHA), Haber Elazığ, agency copy elsewhere… Whoever was involved, they were caught red-handed, “caught in the act (suçüstü yakaladı)”.

[As I explain, I’m not even sure that these antiquities are antiquities; they may be forgeries. Ancient Near Eastern archaeologist Sanna Aro-Valjus is ‘reluctant to see these as authentic [and] from Palmyra until’ she has ‘seen the records from the museum’. The title should have been “alleged antiquities, allegedly looted from Syria’s Palmyra Museum…”, but I wanted Google to be able to translate something.]

The basics

Turkish Gendarmerie (Jandarma) have ‘seized several artifacts‘ and ‘detained’ three people who were trying to sell those artefacts (İ.L., İ.A. and V.Ş.) in eastern Turkey. The objects are in the protective custody of the Museum Directorate (Müze Müdürlüğü). If “several” does mean “more than two”, only two have been shown. Have the other antiquities not been identified or are they not photogenic?

The finds include a Roman statue, which reports have categorised as a Bride of the Desert, though the city of Palmyra was known as the Bride of the Desert. Is that the statue’s type, or is it a misunderstanding or mistranslation of the statue’s origins? The other identified find is a wine chalice that apparently belonged to Emperor Tiberius. Have they been checked against official records? Can anyone comment on whether they look genuine? To my untrained and ill-informed eye, the statue doesn’t look as fine as other Roman statues that I’ve seen.

Suriye'deki Palmira'dan kaçırılan eserler Elazığ'da bulundu (İhlas Haber Ajansı, 24 Kasım 2015 a)

Suriye’deki Palmira’dan kaçırılan eserler Elazığ’da bulundu (İhlas Haber Ajansı, 24 Kasım 2015 a)

Suriye'deki Palmira'dan kaçırılan eserler Elazığ'da bulundu (İhlas Haber Ajansı, 24 Kasım 2015 b)

Suriye’deki Palmira’dan kaçırılan eserler Elazığ’da bulundu (İhlas Haber Ajansı, 24 Kasım 2015 b)

It may be a little bit more complicated than that

The antiquities had apparently been taken from Palmyra Museum in south-central Syria, which led Çok Afedersnz Kadın to believe that they had been looted by the Islamic State. Ceftali believed that, ‘since the regime emptied the Palmyra museum before jihadists arrived’, it was more ‘more likely’ that the antiquities had been ‘smuggled by Syrian [regime] officers‘.

I originally said that believing this would have required us to believe every good thing that the regime said about itself. Ceftali claims that I am ‘spreading false info. We know the regime took everything because there are witnesses’. I believe that there is good evidence – including both local testimony and contradictions within regime propaganda – that the regime had not evacuated all of the museum’s antiquities. People can read a range of accounts from regime officials and opposition activists and judge for themselves.

I am not saying that the antiquities were not trafficked by regime forces (or by the Islamic State). But data show that ‘smuggling of historical artifacts into Turkey from conflict-ridden neighboring Syria has significantly increased‘. And this massive flow of antiquities is being carried by refugees (who use them as currency), opportunists, antiquities traffickers, multi-commodity traffickers and organised criminals as well as armed groups.

Ceftali also relays Palmyrans’ explanation of the reason that the regime evacuated all of the museum’s antiquities, ‘so they can sell them themselves rather than ISIS doing that’. Yet, so far, this does not look like (very well) organised crime or international terrorist financing.

Media have relayed that ‘the suspects obtained the artifacts from Syrian refugees’ (‘Suriyeli sığınmacılardan alındığı‘, ‘Suriyeli mültecilerden alındığı‘). It’s not even clear if the suspects bought the antiquities, took them on consignment, extorted them or simply stole them. Refugees may have been exploited as antiquities transporters, like drug mules. But even if it was a professional operation, it was not necessarily a (para)military one.

Refugee trafficking and opportunistic exploitation?

Moreover, some reports have stated that the antiquities were recovered ‘inside Balakgazi Park [Balakgazi Parkı içerisinde]’ in Harput, which is variously categorised as a neighbourhood in Elazığ or a town next to Elazığ (which is also the capital of its province). Those reports have stated that the suspects were ‘trying to sell the ancient statue and wine chalice [tarihi heykel ve şarap kadehini satmaya çalışan]’ in the park.

If the suspects were trying to sell valuable, identifiable antiquities from Palmyra Museum in a public park (if the suspects were not trying to sell the antiquities and intercepted in the park), they were not professionals. Indeed, this case would recall the armed robbers who tried to sell valuable, identifiable antiquities from Olympia Museum in a public square. If so, the antiquities may have been transported by desperate displaced persons and bought by exploitative but incompetent opportunists.

Professional but not paramilitary?

Other reports have stated that the gendarmerie were tipped off about antiquities trafficking. Those reports have stated that the suspects were detained and the antiquities were recovered in a raid on an address in Harput. (‘Harput Mahallesi’ndeki bir adrese operasyon düzenledi.’) But in those reports, the detainees were still suspected of trying to sell the antiquities on the local [illicit] market. They were not suspected of being in the process of trafficking the antiquities to a national market, let alone smuggling or selling the stuff into the international market.

[As @zbkbz rightly emphasises, ‘there is no legal market for [archaeological] artefacts in [Turkey] regardless of their origin’. When I mention the local market (and indeed the national market and international market), it is an illicit market.]

With the power at their disposal, would either Assad regime forces or Islamic State fighters have sold antiquities from Palmyra Museum to refugees, at a price where the refugees were able to sell them on at a profit for the price that they could get in Harput, a town of 2,000 people?

Having orchestrated the systematic plunder of Palmyra Museum, would either regime forces or IS fighters have exploited refugees as couriers, in order to deliver their precious cargo to their preferred dealer, who sold antiquities into the provincial Turkish market, possibly by approaching strangers in public parks?

If these are genuine antiquities, which were looted from Palmyra Museum, and which were trafficked by or for the Assad regime or the Islamic State, it would seem to imply a disorganised dash for cash. But there is not yet enough evidence to say.


Thank you to everyone who notified me about this case. I’ve been restricted to Google cache copies of reports, recently (as the source pages have required too much bandwidth to load). Now my battery’s running out too, but I’m back on the road anyway…

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