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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The black market for smuggled antiquities has been around far longer than Isis and is not restricted to them now, Giglio said. Every armed group in Syria is involved. “We focus on Isis so much because they want us to and also because the US government wants us to as well, because we’re at war; it’s propaganda from both sides.”

This kind of misinformation is a major problem, said Sam Hardy of the American University of Rome, who tracks the illicit sale of antiquities online. We do not know how much Isis is profiting from this trade because there is no hard evidence. “I compiled all the different numerical claims that have been made about trafficking objects out of Syria. I am 99% sure that all of them are wrong.”

Michael Will, the manager of the Organised Crime Networks Group at Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, went further. “We have no evidence that Isis is selling antiquites to fund its activities,” he said. Any estimate of what Isis is making from this trade is likely to be a pure fabrication, several speakers said. Nevertheless anecdotal evidence suggests that Isis have professionalised the illicit trade in antiquities by instituting a system of licences that must be obtained by diggers operating in territory it controls, Giglio said.

As objects change hands along the illicit network travelling from the Middle East to Europe and beyond, they escalate in price. It is the “powerful international players” who profit from this trade, not the impoverished Syrians supplying the goods, Giglio said. “One of my contacts was on a coin sale website and he was upset. He keeps seeing objects that he handled on the Turkish-Syrian border resold on websites like that but for a huge mark up. So now he’s planning to move to Europe to do the same work,” Giglio said.

Francesco Rutelli, the former Italian minister of culture and former mayor of Rome, accused international art dealers and collectors of encouraging the “bloody” trade in illicitly-removed artefacts. “Collectors desire to own for themselves what belongs to all humankind,” he said.

The way to combat this trade on the ground is to provide sustainable development and to change the life opportunities for people who are involved, Sam Hardy said. In Mali, West Africa, the problem of looting has been decreased by 75% using this twin approach, he added.

In Syria, the damage the illicit trade is doing cannot be overstated. “With the business of illicit antiquities we can see the lasting damage the war is doing to the people of Syria, their collective psyche and their shared history. What we call Syria is disappearing building by building, refugee by refugee, artefact by artefact,” Giglio said.

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.

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAxMDUwIiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifSx7IklEIjoiMjAxMDUxIiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifSx7IklEIjoiMjAxMDUyIiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pOther robberies took place at Norwich Castle Museum—where a rhino horn was seized and then dropped after visitors alerted the police—and Gorringes auction house in Lewes, East Sussex—where a libation cup was seized and visitors again thwarted the criminals. The gang also made reconnaissance visits to the Powell Cotton Museum near Margate, Kent; Tennants auctioneers in Leyburn, North Yorkshire; and museums in Oxford and Glasgow.

The total value of the items actually taken by the gang totalled between £18m and £57m, according to the police. Chi Chong Donald Wong, from south London, who was among those convicted, regularly travelled to Hong Kong and was named in court as the person who was meant to sell on the Chinese antiquities and rhino horn.

Derbyshire’s chief constable Mick Creedon, who leads the national effort to combat organised crime, described the convicted men as part of “a sophisticated criminal network”. He added: “This case starkly demonstrates the level of threat, the lengths criminal gangs will go to and the importance of law enforcement agencies sharing intelligence and working together, nationally and internationally.”