What do we really know about Islamic State’s role in illicit antiquities trade?

A still from a video obtained by Buzzfeed that it says shows an illicit dig in eastern Syria
How are stolen antiquities being smuggled out of Syria? How much does Islamic State (Isis) profit from this illegal trade? Can we do anything to stop it? These were some of the questions broached by investigators and scholars at a symposium on art and terrorism co-organised by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (Arca) held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London last Saturday, 27 February.

Mike Giglio, an investigative journalist with Buzzfeed who spends much of his time reporting from Turkey’s 560-mile border along Syria, has witnessed firsthand the steady stream of objects smuggled out of the war-torn country. The border is long, porous and difficult to control, Giglio said, and some guards are involved in the trade. But he warned against demonising the people who dig for artefacts in Syria and then smuggle them out. “It’s a sign of the desperation of the people affected by the conflict… they see artefacts buried in the ground as their ticket out of their current hell.”

Giglio has seen major pieces pass through the border such as a Roman mosaic removed from the floor of an ancient villa and taken out of the country rolled up in a carpet. On another occasion, a source showed Giglio photographs of several Roman portrait bust sculptures from Palmyra. However major objects such as these are the exception. “Some of my contacts have sold things for a few hundred dollars, or even a few thousand dollars, but what really drives this business are the really small transactions which take place constantly rather than the big-ticket items,” Giglio said, adding that many of the objects coming out of Syria are fake.

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Criminal gang convicted of stealing antiquities and rhino horn from UK museums

On 5 April 2012, two men broke into Durham’s Oriental Museum by smashing a large hole into the building
Fourteen men have been convicted for their roles in a criminal ring that targeted museums and auction houses across the UK, including the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Oriental Museum in Durham. The thefts and robberies involved Chinese antiquities and rhinoceros horn (valued by some for its supposed medicinal power), worth up to £57m.

On 29 February, four Cambridgeshire men, all part of the same family, were found guilty of conspiracy to steal: Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, John “Kerry” O’Brien, Richard “Kerry” O’Brien Jr and Michael Hegarty. They have links with Rathkeale, in County Limerick, Ireland and are part of a group known as the Rathkeale Rovers or the Dead Zoo Gang. The prosecution described them as the “generals” who worked behind the scenes, organising an international gang of criminals that stole the objects for a growing Chinese black market.

Eight other men had been found guilty in three recent trials. Two others pleaded guilty. Sentencing is expected in early April. Richard “Kerry” O’Brien Jr and Hegarty have previous convictions in the US for trying to buy rhino horns with the intention of smuggling them into Ireland.

The convictions are the result of a national investigation set up by Cambridgeshire and Durham police called Operation Griffin, following a string of thefts in 2011-12. This led to a series of trials at Birmingham Crown Court, but because of reporting restrictions imposed on the case, the details can only now be revealed.

The Fitzwilliam Museum burglary was the most serious. In the early evening of 13 April 2012, when the museum was closed, thieves broke in by cutting a hole through security shutters and bars. They smashed cabinets, seizing 18 jade objects valued at between £15m and £40m, none of which have been recovered.

During the winter of 2011-12, a rhino libation cup was stolen from Durham’s Oriental Museum, but the incident went unreported in the media. Another unreported attempted theft took place during opening hours on 16 January 2012, when a man broke into a cabinet, took a Ming ceramic and put it in his rucksack. Staff were alerted and successfully stopped the man from leaving the museum, leading to his arrest. Three months later, on 5 April, two men entered the museum late in the evening by smashing a large hole into the building. They broke into two cases, taking a Ming jade bowl and an ancient porcelain figure. These items were recovered by police a week later.

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The Last Opera

1024x1024“While his contemporaries steered toward modernism, Floyd took a more conservative tack musically, merging older European tradition with newer American folk music forms and regional vernacular. For years, Floyd’s approach kept some scholars from embracing his work. He wasn’t mentioned in Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s ‘A History of Opera’ when it was published in […]