Last year, Simon Cox led a team who investigated ISIS: Looting for Terror for the BBC (File on 4). Since then, he has led a team who have investigated ISIS and the Missing Treasures for Channel 4 (Dispatches). On both occasions, they have done solid investigative work and secured new evidence of antiquities trafficking. My queries do not detract from that work.
Still, on both occasions, they have been exclusively focused on the Islamic State. I believe that is unfortunate: first, because they have obscured certain things, rather than clarified them; and, second, because the focus reinforces a misunderstanding of the crime and the conflict, which contributes to real-world policy with real-world consequences.
In Lebanon, during ISIS: Looting for Terror, their own fixer Michael explained, ‘anyone who has antiquities at this point is pretty much being accused of being in league with ISIS, so it’s not just the charge of trafficking antiquities, it’s also terrorism charges’. Does the media’s myopic focus on the Islamic State help or hinder effective and just policing?
‘Why on earth aren’t we doing more to stop them coming onto the market?’
As cultural property recovery consultant Dick Ellis noted in ISIS and the Missing Treasures, during a discussion of a shipment of ‘personal and household items’ from Syria to the UK in September 2015, which included suspicous antiquities, the U.K. Border Force have not seized any antiquities since the beginning of the crisis. Indeed, when he visited the same antique market as the documentary-makers, Paul Barford found ‘some very interesting material’.
Ellis complained: ‘These pieces are moving through customs, they’re moving through our ports, all the time. And yet not a single item is seized in this country.’ When they are being looted in crisis zones and conflict zones and they are being used to finance repression and other political violence, ‘why on earth aren’t we doing more to stop them coming onto the market?’
Has the Islamic State controlled antiquities trafficking in the Syrian civil war from day one?
In ISIS: Looting for Terror, File on 4 investigated whether the illicit antiquities trade was ‘being used to fund terrorist organisations, like Islamic State’. They interviewed a Syrian smuggler, “Mohammed”, who told them that ‘ISIS [were] the one[s] from day one, they [were] the one[s] who [were in] control of this business and they [were] the one[s] who stole most of the antiquities and artefacts’. ISIS did not even exist on day one.
Technically, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had been militarily active (since the 29th July 2011), had been looting (at the very latest by very early 2012), had established full-time looting teams (by November 2012) and had even advertised their looting in the Washington Post (on 13th February 2013) before ISIS existed (from 9th April 2013).
ISIL did incorporate a faction from Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) in Syria, which had existed since August 2011 and was itself an offshoot from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI); ISIL did centre around the original Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which had existed since 15th October 2006 in Iraq; and ISIL’s constituent elements did ultimately emerge from ancestral organisations that went through Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2004 to others as far back as 1999 in Iraq. Al Qaeda was certainly already acting internationally to secure finances via antiquities trafficking by 2001.
Yet the jihadist organisation had been redesigned and rebuilt in Iraq after ISI had suffered an ‘extraordinary crisis’ between 2006 and 2008 and been ‘defeat[ed]’ by 2009. Al Qaeda was still ‘basically finished’ in Syria in mid-2011. JaN’s first attack in Syria was on 27th December 2011 and it only declared its existence on 23rd January 2012, by which time looting had already begun at sites such as regime-held Apamea and (then) rebel-held Palmyra.
According to Syrian archaeologist Amr al-Azm, the Islamic State only began taxing (protection racketeering) traffickers in late 2013-early 2014, then contracting looters in its territory in mid-2014, when it had about 10,000 fighters, and directing looters in late 2014, by which point it had about 20,000-30,000 fighters. (Personally, I find it difficult to understand why the Islamic State would not have taken more direct control and thus made more money sooner, but perhaps it judged power-brokers’ acceptance more important than sheer profit until it had consolidated its control.)
Regardless, the rebels and the regime have been involved since day one. Like the rebels, the regime was already using antiquities trafficking as irregular financing for irregular forces by 2012. Indeed, while pre-war cases may necessarily have been discussed solely in terms of “big business tycoons”, Syrian archaeologists have affirmed to me that such cases could not have happened and did not happen without the assistance of regime officials and that such cases dated back to 1990 at the latest. So, they had the international networks for serious operations long before the conflict. Yet still now, none of the groups has an absolute monopoly.
Furthermore, File on 4 noted that, though ‘much’ of “Mohammed”‘s route from Syria through the Beka’a Valley to Lebanon was, by then, ‘run by the jihadist Islamic State’, ‘part’ of it was ‘under control of rebel groups’. So even “Mohammed”‘s own operation must have been financing rebel as well as jihadist activity.
The majority of what from whom?
In ISIS: Looting for Terror, the head of excavations at Lebanon’s Directorate-General of Antiquities, Assaad Seif, stated that traffickers targeted ‘excavations more than museums’. ‘[At] Palmyra, for example, [antiquities] were stolen from the warehouses of the excavation…. They know that the warehouses of the archaeological sites and excavations have important artefacts, so they hit there and they know they are not listed or they are not catalogued yet.’ Such plunder is also not visible on satellite imagery, so it is impossible to document and track through remote survey.
Notably, they broadcast Seif’s analysis months before the Islamic State took control of Palmyra, when it was under the fortified control of the Assad regime; even earlier, it had been under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). So, if an armed group did profit from this looting, it was not the Islamic State; it was either the regime or the rebels.
Representing Lebanon’s Bureau of International Thefts, Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholas Saad stated that ‘a lot more’ antiquities were being trafficked from Syria to Lebanon due to the war ‘and especially from the Islamic [State] parts, [such as] Raqqa’. He confirmed that ‘the majority of the material’ that Lebanon had seized was ‘from the Islamic State parts’ of Syria.
Cox summarised, ‘it’s thought all sides in the conflict have taken part in looting. But crucially the majority of the seized items are from the areas that IS controls – cities like Raqqa.’ Lebanon’s evidence is empirical and important. However, the numbers are incredibly difficult to use.
If we compare international journalists’ two favourite transit countries, Lebanon and Turkey, is the country that recovers the most objects: (a) the country that is used by the greatest number of traffickers; (b) the country that is used for the greatest volume of trafficking; and/or (c) the country with the most successful policing?
Likewise, if most antiquities that are seized in Lebanon have been trafficked from Islamic State territory, are most antiquities trafficked from Islamic State territory? Or are most antiquities, which are trafficked from other politically-motivated armed groups’ territories, trafficked through other transit countries?
Are even most antiquities, which are trafficked through Lebanon, trafficked from Islamic State territory? After all, already before the war, smuggling (and facilitating corruption) was woven into ‘several layers of Lebanon’s criminal, security and political organizations’ and Assad regime officials were among the elites who were ‘profiting’. Since the start of the conflict, trafficking has expanded to carry ‘weapons, funds and fighters’, including to supply ‘Syrian opposition groups’ (rebels).
Hezbollah is involved in antiquities trafficking as well as arms trafficking, cannabis trafficking and cocaine trafficking. Its front companies are engaged in money-laundering by means of conflict diamond trafficking.
Hezbollah has long had control of smuggling routes across the border between Lebanon and Syria, as well as a “control structure” within Lebanon’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, which facilitates their organised crime and political violence. And that is organised in cooperation with the intelligence services of the Assad regime. Hezbollah also provide ‘full-scale combat support’ for the Assad regime in Syria.
In terms of trafficking to supply warring parties, this situation has made it more difficult for Syrian rebels and other non-state forces, and easier for the Assad regime, to exploit Lebanon. How many antiquities are invisible in the statistics, because they are flowing through these channels?
In ISIS: Looting for Terror, the Project Officer for the UNESCO Observatory of Syrian Cultural Heritage, Cristina Menegazzi, explained the problem with the total evidence base: ‘We checked with people [in] the field in Syria, we checked information with people outside Syria, we checked information with Interpol, with Customs, with everybody, and everybody says the same thing: we do not have statistics yet; we do not have figures; [we do not have] precise numbers.’
Still, there is some indicative evidence of the potential value of the illicit trade for organised criminals and armed groups. Seif noted that dealers had tried to sell antiquities for up to $200,000 in Lebanon (and a few of them had been worth $1,000,000 on the international market). Again, this is good information.
However, File on 4 also interviewed a smuggler who transported various commodities between Syria and Lebanon and an intermediary between smugglers from Syria and dealers in Turkey. Smuggler “Mohammed” said: ‘Some people sold pieces worth $500,000. Some people sold pieces worth $1 million. Less, more, a lot of money involved.’ An accompanying article shows that he meant more senior traffickers had made up to $1,000,000. That is up to five times as much as the pieces that had been offered by dealers in market-facing countries such as Lebanon. Is he a reliable witness?
Intermediary “Ahmed” presented ‘statues from Raqqa city’. Cox summarised that “Ahmed” had ‘an array of statues of animals and human figures, glasses, vases and coins’ and ‘handle[d] each piece gently’, because he had paid a ‘sizeable bond to the smugglers’ for the opportunity to be able to sell their loot.
“Ahmed” claimed: ‘They come from the east area of Syria, like there’s Raqqa city. All these areas are controlled by ISIS.’ Unfortunately, File on 4 took his testimony as ‘further confirmation then that looted goods [were] coming from IS controlled towns like Raqqa’.
In the programme, archaeologist David Gill noted that “Ahmed” had been handling a mix of ‘contemporary’ fakes and ‘genuine’ antiquities. Afterwards, in review, archaeologist Paul Barford agreed that the objects were a mix of fake antiquities and genuine but low-value antiquities. The cheap old things will have been there to lend an aura of authenticity to the newly-forged things.
“Ahmed” claimed that prices reached ‘$1.5 million to $2 million’. That is up to ten times as much as the pieces that had been offered by dealers in Lebanon. He also claimed that he had ‘seen a piece’ that had ‘been sold for $1.1 million’. That is more than five times as much as the pieces that had been offered by dealers in Lebanon.
In an accompanying article, “Ahmed” was quoted as saying that it was ‘a piece from the year 8500BC’ – the start of the pre-pottery Neolithic. I seriously doubt it. Neolithic antiquities simply do not sell for more than a million dollars. “Ahmed” was just trying to convince and impress his potential clients, in order to sell.
Some dealers advertise their criminality
Perhaps the best evidence in ISIS: Looting for Terror came from its investigation into trading in transit countries and market countries. They interviewed a dealer in Beirut, who told them that he ‘had things that were illegal’, but that ‘not only could he sell’ them, ‘he could also get them transported back to the UK’.
They also checked dealerships in London. As archaeologist David Gill recalled, they ‘saw just rows almost of late Roman glass, Byzantine glass…, complete, so something that’s survived 1,500 years, still with sort of earth deposits on’, which is indicative of looted antiquities. ‘It looks as if it comes from the eastern part of the Roman Empire, so Syria would be a very plausible place. The mud suggest[s] it’s relatively fresh out of the ground…. [If] someone had this in their private collection, they would have cleaned it. I suspect these are things relatively fresh out of the ground.’ They also saw ‘batches of [Seleucid] coins…. from what is now sort of Lebanon, Syria’.
Cox noted, one dealer said that a piece of glasswork was ‘from Syria’. The dealers in London were not quite as forward as the ones in Beirut, but they were not too far behind…
‘Illegal’ Syrian antiquity found on sale for £30,000 in London
ISIS and the Missing Treasures was trailed in an article by Robin Henry in the Sunday Times. Henry relayed that the antiquities dealer Fares Dalloul had stated that ‘the lintel had come from Nawa, a city in southern Syria’. ‘While Nawa has been the site of clashes involving Isis’, Henry noted, ‘there is no evidence the terrorist group took the lintel.’
That non-confirmation, non-denial was a thread that ran throughout the reporting. It implied that they could not prove that the terrorist group was involved, rather than that they could prove that the terrorist group was not involved (in any reasonable scenario).
ISIS and the Missing Treasures was also trailed in an interview by Sarah Montague for the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 (from 02h54m16s). ‘Precious ancient antiquities, looted by so-called Islamic State, have been turning up for sale in the UK…. And some, [the documentary-makers have] established, have turned up here’, Montague half-introduced, half-asked.
Cox explained that they had ‘found a really interesting item for sale here’. ‘We spent months looking at this and we found a… lintel,… a big stone beam, that was for sale in a gallery in Mayfair. It was there, openly displayed on the floor.’ The clear implication is that the lintel was one of those antiquities that had been looted by the Islamic State and offered for sale in the UK.
When Cox (correctly) stated that it had ‘definitely been looted from Syria’, Montague checked, ‘within the last few years?’ Cox (again, correctly) pointed out that the dealer’s own invoice did not describe what he had bought, which implied that someone, somewhere, sometime could have fraudulently associated an invoice for something that was sold before the war with an antiquity that was looted during the war. Such false provenance documentation is a persistent problem.
Nonetheless, there was an invoice for a sale in 2007 (as well as ‘a shipping note for three items’ and ‘a bill for storage’), and the last time that the lintel had been documented in Syria was 1988, so there was no evidence that the antiquity had been looted during the conflict, let alone that its handling had financed any of the politically-motivated armed groups in the conflict, let alone that its handling had financed the Islamic State.
Later, Montague further checked: ‘The piece that you found – are you able to say whether there’s a money trail as well, i.e. that money from here was effectively funding IS, so-called Islamic State?’ Cox (yet again, correctly) explained that it was ‘really difficult’ to follow the money, ‘because they will sell it on to a dealer, who’ll then sell it on to a dealer and [they’ll] then sell it on to a[nother] dealer…’
Dealers withhold material (evidence) from each other, which protects them and facilitates the trade, as each can complain that someone else withheld the documentation and then argue that there is no evidence that the object has been looted or stolen and/or illegally exported. The argument is one, very small step up from the line in lazy police shows, where the criminal says “(you can’t) prove it”.
Cox also pointed out that a different dealer had been ‘offered several consignments’ of other antiquities ‘that had definitely come from IS-controlled territory’. Still, in the end, Cox’s answer was a non-answer. It was another way of saying that they could not prove that the Islamic State was involved, rather than that they could prove that the Islamic State was not involved. The simple answer is “no”. There is no money trail to the Islamic State, visible or invisible. (At least, if there is, it will be truly remarkable.)
‘As ISIS plunder[ed] ancient sites in Syria, to help finance its terror campaign,’ in ISIS and the Missing Treasures, Dispatches investigated what was ‘being done to stop those treasures reaching these shores.’ Like some law enforcement agencies, they appeared incurious about the Assad regime’s plunder of ancient sites in Syria to help finance its terror campaign, the Free Syrian Army’s plunder to help finance its war, even Jabhat al-Nusra’s plunder to help finance its non-Islamic State jihadist terror campaign.
Was Ancient Near Eastern archaeologist Mark Altaweel’s prompt – ‘Are people, now, potentially buying antiquities that are funding terror groups or groups that are involved in the conflict?’ – the only reference to the financing of other armed groups? Perhaps I missed a comment while I was making notes.
Yet, for instance, Dispatches explained that the Islamic State’s ‘fighters captured the city’ of Palmyra (on the 21st of) May 2015 ‘and released propaganda footage from inside’. (On the 27th of) March 2016, ‘the Syrian army won it back. But it’s still not known how much of the city’s treasures have been looted.’ There was no recognition of evidence that the Assad regime looted Palmyra before the Islamic State or that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) looted Palmyra before the Assad regime.
When Ruslan Trad interviewed me for Muftah, for example, he introduced the interview by explaining how Palmyra had been ‘looted by rebels and the regime, as well as by ISIS‘. He specifically asked about the involvement of other armed groups (and none): ‘How is the trafficking network related to ISIS? Are there trafficking routes in Syria that are outside ISIS’s control?’
Discussing the harm to cultural heritage sites across Syria in ISIS and the Missing Treasures, Dispatches chose the example of Mari, which was ‘interesting’ because it was ‘under the control of IS’. As Ancient Near Eastern archaeologist Graham Philip duly commented, Mari ‘may well be one of the sites that has been looted under [Islamic State] licence’.
Alternatively, Dispatches could have chosen to show “industrial-scale” looting at Dura-Europos under the Free Syrian Army (FSA), “stunning” looting at Apamea under the regime, looting at Ebla (Tell Mardikh) under the regime and/or a rebel-jihadist coalition, even looting at Mari under the rebel-jihadist coalition that preceded Islamic State occupation…
Islamic State-looted antiquities are reaching the UK
As shown in the discussion of the Sunday Times article and the Radio 4 programme (and the title of the documentary), everything in ISIS and the Missing Treasures was presented in the context of looting by the Islamic State. Cox’s ‘sources’ had told him that ‘looted items [were] turning up here [in the UK]’. Unfortunately, during more than a year of investigation, none of his sources could show him any of those looted items. That is not surprising and does not undermine their investigation.
After all, if a dealer had any idea that they were handling antiquities that had been looted by the Islamic State, would they put those antiquities on prominent display in central London; advertise the fact that the pieces had been published (and were therefore demonstrably looted); and give enough information for people to identify those objects?
Owner Fares Dalloul enthusiastically offered: ‘I have [an] invoice…. I [will] give it to you. I don’t care…. They [came] here legally.’ ‘Someone came from Germany… 100 years [ago] or more…. So you can find in this book, this picture [of] this stone and… everything about this.’
I am not a denialist. I have analysed and highlighted evidence of antiquities trafficking by the Islamic State. I have documented forensic evidence of the Islamic State’s sophisticated organisation of trafficking, which was identified by one reader of Conflict Antiquities and analysed by others. I believe that Islamic State-looted antiquities are reaching international markets.
I may even count as one of the documentary’s sources. I have argued my position publicly. They may have read my argument with regard to the suspected fundraisers who were caught in Operation Aureus/Operation Hieratica.
Hence, I do not understand why they overlaid their investigation with this insinuation about the lintel. They were right that it is very difficult to connect specific looted antiquities on the market with violent movements at the source. They ably proved that there were definitely looted antiquities on the market in the UK. And those looted antiquities will include ones that have financed armed groups around the world. Yet now, when people read this, they will remember that the lintel was not trafficked by the Islamic State, instead of that looted cultural property was on open sale.
Ignorant or disingenuous?
In ISIS and the Missing Treasures, antiquities dealer James Ede argued: ‘[Syrian antiquities] coming to the UK I don’t think is really a problem at the moment. Clearly there are mechanisms in place in this country to stop smuggled material coming in.’ By that logic, there is not and cannot be a problem with the smuggling of cigarettes, alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, heroin, weapons or any other illicit commodities into the UK. It is absurd.
Or is Ede arguing that the trafficking of antiquities is more heavily policed than the trafficking of drugs, arms, indentured labourers and sex slaves? As Dick Ellis noted, the UK has ‘the second-largest antiquities market in the world, and the largest Islamic [art] market in the world’, yet only three officers in the Art and Antiques Unit to police it.
Ede explained: ‘I’m not saying that nothing is coming out of Syria. I am saying it’s not on an industrial scale and that it is not something that is funding ISIS.’ It is absolutely on an industrial scale and it is funding not only the Islamic State, but also other armed groups. (Incidentally, would it be reassuring if antiquities trafficking was only financing other armed groups?)
Antiquities trafficking has financed state criminals and other politically-motivated armed groups for more than a century-and-a-half and it continues to finance such violent criminals around the world.
Provenance and profitability
According to dealer Elias Assad, owner Fares Dalloul had allegedly paid a hundred thousand pounds (£100,000 or $146,000) for the lintel, and had definitely initially offered it for fifty thousand pounds (£50,000 or $73,000), but eventually offered it for twenty-five to thirty thousand pounds (£25,000-£30,000 or $36,000-$44,000) to the undercover archaeologists in ISIS and the Missing Treasures.
Dalloul explained that, if he had ‘provenance’ (a documented collecting history) for the lintel, which showed that he (or someone else) had had it for ‘forty years, fifty years’, he could sell it through Christie’s or Sotheby’s auction house and ‘sell it for maybe ten times more’. Sadly, as I showed in a research study for UNESCO, the publicly-visible market handles objects with far shorter collecting histories.
However, the premium price for documented antiquities is “only” 65, 72, 74 or perhaps 100 per cent more than the price for undocumented antiquities. It is clearly enough to incentivise the preservation and publication of paperwork. Sellers can literally double their money. It also clearly shows that the market happily handles antiquities for which buyers and/or sellers have not preserved or will not release the paperwork. (Otherwise, the price difference would be far greater.)
Client confidentiality or client profitability?
One of the trade’s excuses for a lack of paperwork is the need to respect a client’s wish for confidentiality. In ISIS and the Missing Treasures, lintel owner Fares Dalloul showed another reason: ‘Also, we need cash, we don’t take cheque[s]…. because a cheque would take twenty per cent [20%] VAT.’ As Ancient Near Eastern archaeologist Alessio Palmisano rephrased it, an undocumented cash sale is appealing because, that way, ‘you don’t pay taxes’.
An ornamental lintel from a Jewish house in Nawa, Syria
Historically, Nawa has also been transliterated Nave, Naveh, Nawe and Neve. The “ornamental lintel from a Jewish house at Nave”, which came from ‘the gateway of the yard of Sheikh Ibrahim el Midyab’s dwelling’, was published by Gottlieb Schumacher in 1886 and by Leo Mayer and Adolph Reifenberg in 1936 (in Hebrew, then republished in English by Ruth Amiran in 1956).
It was documented again by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in 1988. As was established in Article 69 of the Antiquities Law of 1963, was maintained in the amended Antiquities Law of 1999 and will be maintained in any revised law, antiquities may only be exported as gifts to scientific excavators of Syrian sites or exchanges with scientific bodies outside Syria. And they may only be exported with an export licence.
As Ancient Near Eastern archaeologist Augusta McMahon observed to Cox, there is ‘no question’ that the lintel in the photograph of Nawa in 1988 and the lintel on the shop floor in London in 2015 are ‘exactly the same thing’. So, the DGAM’s photograph is, ‘absolutely,… all the evidence we need to prove that it was removed illegally, was exported illegally’.
Due to the investigation for ISIS and the Missing Treasures, the lintel has been seized by the police in the UK, recorded in Interpol’s database of stolen works of art and requested by authorities in Syria.
Nawa has been occupied by the regime, its irregular shabiha and its allied Hezbollah; and by the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra
In ISIS and the Missing Treasures, Cox summarised that there was ‘no evidence to suggest that the lintel [was] linked to ISIS, but… it was definitely looted’ from ‘Nawa, a town in southern Syria, a region caught up in Syria’s civil war and where ISIS is fighting’.
Nawa has resisted the regime since the beginning of the uprising (since before 24th April 2011, at the latest by 22nd March 2011, within a week of the outbreak of protests in Damascus and Aleppo on 15th March 2011). Consequently, it was quickly occupied by the regime’s irregular forces, shabiha (“ghosts”). It was further repressed by regime forces by 24th April 2011, who slowly besieged the city, then re-entered it from 10th May 2011 and occupied it from 17th May 2011.
There had certainly been clashes between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Assad regime soldiers in Nawa, near Awfa Bridge and al-Hajar Mosque, by 21st January 2012. Still, regime repression of the local community persisted at least until 13th April 2012. The regime must have lost control soon afterwards though because, by 19th July 2012, it had resorted to ‘shelling’ Nawa.
Nawa was besieged, and partially invaded and occupied by the Assad regime and Hezbollah, by March 2013. Still, it was also partially and increasingly held by a coalition of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the non-Islamic State jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) from 16th July 2013 onwards. At the latest by 15th August 2013, the regime had yet again resorted to shelling the city.
The FSA-JaN coalition had renewed its campaign for control of the city by 20th February 2014. The regime responded with an ‘apocalyptic’ campaign of barrel-bombing against the lost territory. The FSA-JaN coalition had taken complete control by 27th April 2014. The regime then responded with ‘massive’ grad missile bombardment and more barrel-bombing, which enabled the regime to partially (re)occupy the city from 17th May 2014 onwards. The regime had been completely ousted by 13th November 2014. Since then, the city has been completely held by the FSA-JaN coalition.
JaN were certainly still inside Nawa in January 2015, when they demolished the mausoleum of Imam Nawawi. Yet, like the Islamic State, their supposedly ideological iconoclasm should not distract from the regime’s indiscriminate annihilation. The regime had already largely ‘destroyed’ the east of the city by 20th November 2014, yet it continued to at least occasionally barrel-bomb Nawa until 8th April 2015.
It was probably not looted during the conflict but, even if it was, its trafficking did not profit the Islamic State
Gottlieb Schumacher (2010 : 172-175) described Sheikh Ibrahim el Midyab’s lintel alongside other lintels, which were close to the water tank of Ain er Rumashtah in the centre of Nawa, in the course of a walk from the centre through the west and out. So, it would seem that this lintel was in central (or west-central) Nawa.
Regardless, at one time or another in the course of the conflict, the neighbourhood of the lintel has been accessible to shabiha (which serve the Assad regime), the Syrian Arab Army of the Assad regime, Hezbollah (which is closely allied with the regime), the rebel Free Syrian Army and the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra (which is sometimes, temporarily, locally, tactically allied with the FSA).
Since early in the conflict, multi-commodity smugglers have testified that every armed force is trafficking antiquities (including the regime, in order to finance shabiha). Satellite imagery has demonstrated ‘looting using heavy machinery’ in fortified regime territory. Other investigations have documented that Hezbollah handles illicit antiquities as well. Multi-commodity smugglers have also incriminated the rebels, though the rebels have practically advertised their trafficking themselves. While it was not explained, other investigations have shown trafficking by “militants” in JaN-dominated territory. So, in general, they would all be potential suspects in cases of trafficking of conflict antiquities, as well as the Islamic State.
However, Nawa has never been occupied by the Islamic State. It is still a ‘rebel stronghold’ in 2016. If the lintel was looted during the conflict, and if its trafficking did profit a politically-motivated armed group, they were regime forces, rebels or non-Islamic State jihadists, not the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the lintel was probably not looted during the conflict and its trafficking probably did not profit any politically-motivated armed group.
Safavid Qur’an from Iran? Ottoman Qur’an from somewhere within the Empire…
A bibliographer of Islamic arts, András Riedlmayer, tipped off Dispatches that london_oriental was advertising a supposedly seventeenth-century or eighteenth-century “Safavid Quran” (also transliterated as Qur’an or Koran) on eBay (for the price of $7,750 plus shipping fees of $75). Cox noted that london_oriental was ‘clearly well established, with around 500 artefacts for sale’.
Riedlmayer observed that the ‘tearing off of the owner’s seal [was] a clear indication that someone [was] trying to conceal the fact that this manuscript was stolen’. Riedlmayer also noted that the tear was ‘very bright and white and clear’, which suggested that ‘it was probably removed quite recently’, although art historian David Knell cautioned that ‘paper tears can remain fresh-looking for decades’.
The Qur’an’s owner, Shiblee Binbourg, said that the Qur’an was ‘from Iran, Safavid’. Both Islamic bibliographer Riedlmayer and Islamic palaeographer Yasmin Faghihi denied that the Qur’an was Safavid or came from Iran. Faghihi specified that it was in fact a nineteenth-century or twentieth-century Ottoman Qur’an.
Indeed, when Dispatches revealed their true identities, Binbourg’s friend and antique Islamic manuscript specialist Basil Adilnor agreed that the Qur’an was not Safavid and did not come from Iran. Adilnor claimed that it was the first time that he had seen the Qur’an and that he was only at the meeting in order to translate the Arabic text.
Apparently, Adilnor has a collection of antique Islamic manuscripts and miniatures in Malmö, Sweden. Still, the existence of the B. Isa Gallery or Basim Isa Gallery (which is the auto-redirect address for Adilnor, which is itself a manual redirect address for the blog of the Adilnor Collection of Antique Islamic Manuscripts, Sweden) suggests that he does sell as well as buy. And it is in Grays Mews Antique Market in London, UK. (Coincidentally, it is next to Elias Assad in Grays Mews’ dealer directory.) So, it is still not clear why Binbourg and Adilnor wanted the inspection and negotiations to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark. Anyway…
Unfortunately, the suspected true origins of the Qur’an are characterised in a variety of ways. Cox explained that ‘Ottoman means it’s more likely that it came from either Syria or Iraq, where ISIS is active’. Though no others were mentioned, there are a range of armed groups that are active in Syria and/or Iraq. And ISIS is not active in most of Syria and Iraq. It may be more likely that the Qur’an came from Syria or Iraq than Iran. But is it more likely that the Qur’an came from Syria or Iraq than Turkey (or Libya or Tunisia or Algeria)?
Cox paraphrased that Faghihi ‘suspect[ed]’ that ‘it was taken from a Syrian library’. Sadly, Dispatches did not report the explanation of the suspicion. Yet Cox also paraphrased “three experts” – Riedlmayer, Faghihi and someone else? – that it was ‘probably, [or] could well be, from Syria or Iraq’. Presumably, it could well be from elsewhere within the territory of the Ottoman Empire, too.
As with the lintel, Cox stated that there was ‘no evidence to suggest that this Qur’an [was] linked to ISIS, but’ three experts were ‘concern[ed] about its history’, which implied that they could not prove that the terrorist group was involved, rather than that there was no reason to suspect that the terrorist group was involved.
If the Qur’an was stolen during the conflict, and if its trafficking did profit a politically-motivated armed group, it could have profited any of the many politically-motivated armed groups. Nevertheless, the Qur’an was probably not stolen during the conflict and its trafficking probably did not profit any politically-motivated armed group.
Owner Shiblee Binbourg said that he bought ‘a lot’ from the supplier of the Qur’an (who appeared to be in Holland, the Netherlands), that he had an invoice for the Qur’an and that he had bought the Qur’an in ‘the 15’ (presumably, 2015). Binbourg’s English was not fluent, so the use of “2015” (instead of “this year”, etc.) does not necessarily indicate that the conversation was held in 2016.
The broadcast screenshots of the eBay advert suggest that Dispatches approached Binbourg last autumn (as eBay estimated a purchase’s delivery date to be between ‘Fri. Sep. 11 and Thu. Sep. 17 [11th September 2015 and 17th September 2015]’. Whenever it was, “within twenty-four hours” of the meeting between Dispatches, Shiblee Binbourg and Basil Adilnor, ‘the Qur’an was no longer for sale on london_oriental. Soon after, the company’s site was removed from the internet entirely.’
Another London-based eBay account sold the Ottoman Qur’an as a Safavid Qur’an
To state the obvious, since Binbourg was already selling the Qur’an by September 2015, he could not have bought it in December 2015. Moreover, if someone had the Qur’an by 4th April 2015 and sold it on 14th December 2015, that person must also have had the Qur’an in September 2015 (unless, somewhat unlikelily, they engaged in the “short selling” of their own cultural assets).
Another London-based eBay account (and Shopiloca account), chalie_1234, had offered the london_oriental Qur’an for sale by 4th April 2015. chalie_1234 used the same title and description as london_oriental. They even included the same typo of “Ppersian” instead of “Persian”. They used the same images. Compare the annotated pages, where the owner’s seal has been torn out. Are london_oriental and chalie_1234 the same person or cooperative partners?
Either way, chalie_1234 appears to have continued to offer the Qur’an for sale while london_oriental was being investigated. And they appear to have sold the Ottoman Qur’an as a Safavid Qur’an for $8,950 (or €8,117 or £5,915, plus $75 to cover shipping fees) on 14th December 2015. What happened here?
Amiran, R B K. 1956: “A fragment of an ornamental relief from Kfar Bar’am”. Israel Exploration Journal, Volume 6, Number 4, 239-245.
Mayer, L A and Reifenberg, A. 1936: “The Jewish buildings of Nawe”. Bulletin of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society, Volume 4, 1-8.
Schumacher, G. 2010 : Across the Jordan: Being an exploration and survey of part of Hauran and Jaulan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Spare screenshots from ISIS and the Missing Treasures, Dispatches, Channel 4, 18th April 2016
Spare screenshots from chalie_1234, eBay, 14th December 2015
Extracts from eBay advertisement by chalie_1234, before and after sale
17/18th C. ANTIQUE GOLD ILLUMINATED SAFAVID QURAN MANUSCRIPT ARABIC PERSIAN See original listing
Ended: Dec 14, 2015 , 5:21PM
Price: US $8,950.00
Shipping: $75.00 Standard Int’l Shipping
Item location:London, United Kingdom
chalie_1234 (1299 )
eBay item number:111636766674
Seller assumes all responsibility for this listing.
Last updated on Nov 13, 2015 21:36:53 PST View all revisions
Binding: Leather Origin: Middle Eastern
Special Attributes: Signed
ANTIQUE GOLD ILLUMINATED QURAN
Arabic, indigenous paper, 12.2 x 8 cm,  + 389 ff., fully-vocalized Naskh script, black ink with rubrication, 13 lines to the page, entire text set within a complex frame (black, gold, blue), catchwords at the bottom of each verso page, Aya-dividers are a small circle in gold with black outline, marginal gold circles for indicating the quarter Guz’, the half Guz’ and the whole Guz’, sura headings as bands within the text and written in red with gold ornamentation, illuminated double opening page with sura 1 and sura 2:1-4 (halfway), MS without colophon (space on f. 388b remains empty), full-leather Oriental binding (flap now lost) with gilded ornamentation (borders, corner pieces, centre pieces).
Dimensions: 12.2 x 8 cm.
Condition: Very good condition.
Shipping: Worldwide, US$75.00 by A-Post.
Payment: The payment process make by Paypal or Bank transfer. Please contact us if you will pay by other means. Please ask: If you have questions regarding the item, contact us before making an offer. We prefer that you ask questions before you buy and good communication will make the transaction smoother for all involved.