Activists go after buyers of stolen antiques : NPR

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Still from a Clooney Justice Foundation video showing the storage and warehouse at the Ain Dara archaeological site in northern Aleppo Governorate, Syria. The facility was later looted by various armed groups and bulldozed at some point between 2019 and 2020.

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Still from a Clooney Justice Foundation video showing the storage and warehouse at the Ain Dara archaeological site in northern Aleppo Governorate, Syria. The facility was later looted by various armed groups and bulldozed at some point between 2019 and 2020.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice

It is common knowledge that non-state armed groups in the Middle East finance themselves with oil and ransoms. But a close third in the pipeline that feeds warlords and terrorists around the world? Looting and sale of antiquities.

If the activists have their way, the buyers and dealers of these stolen cultural relics will face criminal repercussions.

The Docket, a project of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, has conducted an international investigation into the smuggling of antiquities from the Middle East and North Africa, examining the network that supplies looted artifacts to collectors and dealers Westerners. He is sharing his findings with law enforcement in hopes it will lead to criminal prosecution of those who purchased these artifacts, which he says makes them complicit in war crimes and funders of terrorism.

Currently, there are a few recent examples of high profile individuals, such as Jean-Luc Martinez, former director of the Louvre, accused of allegedly buying looted antiquities. But such cases are few and far between.

“We believe that these investigations … will not be successful unless the public pays very serious attention to the matter, unless the antiquities of the conflict begin to be considered as tainted as the diamonds. blood, ivory trade or other forms of trafficking,” said Anya Neistat, legal director of The Docket, sharing some of the project’s findings with reporters in DC on Wednesday.

Here’s why: Antiquities looted from countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya have been sold online for years. Their sales fund armed groups in those countries, funding their weapons and recruitment efforts. These recruits then commit atrocities such as the rape and genocide of Yazidis, a religious minority in the Middle East.

The looting continues, even though the presence of the Islamic State in Syria has diminished. Neistat said Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which currently controls Syria’s Idlib region, continues to dig in the area. Additionally, many items looted between 2012 and 2016 are just coming onto the market.

Looting licenses issued by ISIS

The looting was so formalized that ISIS had a system to license and tax looters, said Amr Al-Azm, professor of history and archeology at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

“Ultimately, ISIS was involved in every step of the looting and trafficking process,” he said, including “bringing in its own crews, using heavy machinery to dig whole mountains…when you invest that kind of money in that kind of stuff.” work, you get a return on your investment. So we know it paid off.

Looters digging at a site in Syria in 2014.

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Looters digging at a site in Syria in 2014.

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In 2020, Interpol noted that 19,000 stolen artifacts were recovered during two international art trafficking crackdowns. But there’s no way to really know just how big this market is – partly due to false paperwork – and how much money is actually being made from the sale of these antiques.

“I was able to see a group of artifacts that were looted and we can show them to experts and estimate their value. But we never got the full picture,” Al-Azm said. , who is also the co-director of the research project on antiquities trafficking and the anthropology of heritage.

But what is clear is that Western collectors are buying without fear of reprisal, despite provisions already present in international law that prohibit looting and include it as a war crime. Looting is also a criminal offense in most European jurisdictions and in the United States.

But the system is such that between online sales, the use of Hawala (an informal money transfer system) and the presence of free ports (places for storing shipments that are essentially jurisdictional black holes) in places like Geneva or Dubai, buyers and resellers can operate without much, if any, legal scrutiny.

Antonia David, legal program manager for The Docket, said dealers and galleries funding terrorist groups through their purchases should also be held accountable.

David pointed to what The Docket advocates as a universal standard in these cases: “You don’t necessarily have to prove that the accomplice shares the same intent as the direct perpetrator.” In other words, for galleries and dealers, it is not necessary for them to know that they were paying for the antiquities to finance an armed group. Just that they paid.

Crack down on buyers

Sam Andrew Hardy, head of illicit trade research at the Heritage Management Organization, said there are already ways to punish people who sell artwork looted during the Holocaust.

“So why not do it for antiquities looted during other devastating massacres or occupation?” He asked.

When a dealer or collector is caught in the act of buying a looted good, he often only incurs a simple slap on the wrist, or even a fine, and is required to return the object in question.

“When asked to return the items, they are often kept anonymous, to save them from blushing, or do so publicly and are commended for their ethical behavior,” said Hardy, who also closely tracks items that have been dug. since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February and cross the borders into Belarus and Russia.

Looted items donated to The Docket team during fieldwork in Lebanon in 2020.

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Looted items donated to The Docket team during fieldwork in Lebanon in 2020.

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Neistat shares this frustration. She told reporters that even after being caught, often repeatedly, dealers often see a spike in their business because “the only thing that mattered in the market was that the items were authentic…and it there is no better proof than the items being returned.”

When asked if collectors or dealers aren’t treated as priority criminals because of their often wealthy connections and influential positions, she replied, “Absolutely.”

“Some of the cases just dissolve… There’s not even an official statement that the case has been closed,” Neistat said. “And in many of those cases, we’re talking about very well-connected people.”

The Docket hopes its investigations will lead to prosecutions and dismantle the market — a goal that Al-Azm says is more urgent than most people realize.

“Let me help put it at the top of your list,” he said. “The next time someone hijacks a plane and flies into a building, it could be funded by some rich white guy buying mosaics.”

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