Friday, April 17, 2015

"Islamic State" Terrorists and the Antiquities Market

The London Times reports that ISIS terrorists are stripping controlled areas in Syria of salable antiquities and surreptitiously selling them either directly to collectors, or into the Western art market. See

In an interesting follow-on article, How ISIS created a terrorist art market , Michael Raggi provides informed commentary on the possibility that recent widely publicized video releases purporting to show jihadists destroying "priceless" ancient statues depict, in fact, only the destruction of unsalable museum copies of artifacts that had previously been moved to other locations. Destruction of monuments such as the Nineveh winged bulls was, however, genuine - such monuments have no market value.

Raggi's observations that "The ISIS brand intends to cultivate the image of a barbarian horde seeking to establish a Caliphate that will eviscerate all Arabic culture and iconography predating Islam ..." and "The pattern that emerges in this episode of cultural genocide is that ISIS is destroying only the art that is deemed to be unsaleable in the international art market ... " ring true.

Is this brutal, destructive on-camera cultural barbarism really a cynical marketing ploy aimed at creating and exploiting a presence in the international antiquities market?

Raggi and the Times present an appalling picture of  how this terrorist organization may be exploiting the "legitimate first world art market" by taking advantage of its traditional reliance upon confidence in long-established sources and personal connections, and a centuries-old tradition of anonymous sales by collectors unwilling to publicly disclose their divestitures for personal, security or financial reasons. 

It is time for Western collectors, especially US collectors, to realize that this situation is a direct and very dangerous threat to their interests. In particular, ancient coin collectors should be alarmed because governmental efforts to prevent (or at least control) such trafficking in "blood antiquities" will almost certainly lay a heavy and indiscriminate hand on the antiquities market, which includes ancient coins.

The ISIS terrorists are unlikely to be taking much (if any) interest in coins, as they are of small value compared to "art objects." The archaeology lobby however is enthusiastically championing the notion that "collection-driven exploitation" of "archaeological sites" must be prevented by restricting the importation of ancient coins into the USA. This is based upon ideological aversion to private collecting, not upon actual evidence that coin-hunters are in fact damaging archaeological sites to any noticeable extent.

There is so far no indication of any recent abnormal influx of ancient coins from ISIS controlled areas into the numismatic market. Collectors and dealers should exercise due diligence, prudent restraint and caution in considering acquisition of coins struck in, or known to have circulated in, Syria and Mesopotamia. Be certain that such acquisitions do not include anything not verifiably traceable to a collection or dealer stock prior to August 2011, when the ISI became active in the Syrian insurgency.

UPDATE 4/17/2013

One might think that there would be very little (if anything) in the above remarks to which a reasonable and responsible advocate of preserving cultural heritage could take exception.

That however did not preclude Varsovian former archaeologist Paul Barford from having his own inimitable "last word" on the subject: The Coin Dealer and Body Bags .

"So the sales of antiquities by militants fighting the US-led invasion from 2003 onwards do not concern collectors? The sales that allowed the purchase of weapons and munitions which led to the death of member of the anti-Saddam coalition? The sales that led to young men going home in body bags? This does not concern Dealer Dave, who is apparently only interested in erosion of profits through attempts to fight ISIL?"

Here Barford asserts that it's not acceptable (according to his perspective) to recommend due diligence, prudence and caution in order to prevent possibly becoming involved in acquisition of anything that may have passed through the hands of ISIS or its confederates. Why? Because that doesn't go far enough. It is apparently wrong, in his view, to take only one step in the "right" direction.

Now had I instead advocated exercising due diligence, prudence and caution in order to prevent possibly becoming involved in acquisition of anything that may have passed through the hands of "militants fighting the US-led invasion from 2003 onwards, including ISIS after August 2011," that would not be "correct" either because "The legislation deciding licit and illicit antiquities in both Syria and Iraq goes back a good deal beyond "August 2011". In Syria, to be precise at least 1963, and Iraq  back to 1936. Anything brought into any "old collection" after those dates without the proper release documentation are illicit antiquities."

Readers are cautioned that "illicit" is Barfordian doublespeak for "undocumented" or "unprovenanced." It does not mean "illegal." Since only a few per cent of ancient coins available for acquisition are "provenanced," that means nearly all ancient coins in private hands are "illicit" even though it is perfectly legal to acquire, own, collect and sell them. 



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