Friday, January 15, 2016

Antiquities from Syria and the London market

© David Gill
I have read Judith H. Dobrzynski's article "Antiquities and ISIS: Something Doesn’t Add Up" in the Artsjournal blog for January 15, 2016 with interest. She notes:
What I discovered, for one thing, is that actual examples of ISIS-looted antiquities on the market are slim to none. True, it may be that objects looted now are being kept in warehouses, for later sale–but that doesn’t finance ISIS now. Also true. the goods may not be coming into the U.S. market. The antiquities dealers I spoke with said they had not seen anything on these shores from looted areas since ISIS began its jihad. 
One of the things that I think is exercising many of us is the indication "ISIS-looted". Unless an object is photographed during the looting process it is unlikely that we can be 100 per cent certain about who has looted it. (But remember the fall-out from the Medici, Becchina, and Schinousa photographic archives.)

Commentators seem to be overlooking London. Last February I can remember looking round a small number of galleries in central London with a team from BBC Radio 4's "File on 4". I was expecting to see a small number of objects that could have been derived from Syria but I was overwhelmed by what we found. (Listen to the tone in my voice.) This research was broadcast in February 2015 both on BBC Radio 4 and subsequently on the BBC World Service. I covered the story here (with link to online BBC programme). My observations and reflection on the programmes were published by the Journal of Art Crime ("Context Matters: From Palmyra to Mayfair: the Movement of Antiquities from Syria and Northern Iraq") in 2015 (and the article is available here).

Then there was an article in the summer relating to further observations about the London market (noted on LM here). This appeared in The Guardian ("Looted in Syria – and sold in London: the British antiques shops dealing in artefacts smuggled by Isis", 3 July 2015).
Mark Altaweel is surprised at how easy it is. A few hours into a hunt around London, the near-east specialist from the UCL Institute of Archaeology has uncovered objects that, he says, are “very likely to be coming from conflict regions” in Iraq and Syria. The items – pieces of early glass; a tiny statue; some fragments of bone inlay – range from the second to fourth centuries BC. Altaweel says they are so distinctive that they could only have come from a particular part of the region: the part now controlled by the so-called Islamic State. That we were able to find such items openly sold in London “tells you the scale – we’re just seeing the tail end of it,” he says.
The article refers back to the BBC programme and quotes me:
Today, other experts assume that similar routes are being used for looted goods coming out of Syria and Iraq. “It’s just the way the market works,” says David Gill ... Looted goods are “coming out through Turkey and Beirut and then containered to who knows where”. By the time an object gets to London, he says, it “has paperwork, internally, within Europe”.
I have been round a number of galleries in London since February. Some have disappeared, but each time I have been able to identify material that is likely to have come from Syria.

I am aware that further research is being conducted in this area and will be made public in due course. (I am lecturing on this topic next week.)

There is also scope to look at material from Syria for sale online and through social media. (But I will be addressing these routes elsewhere.)

But for now it would be worth some of the commentators talking to those of us who have tramped round the streets of London to gather evidence.

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2 comments:

Cultural Property Observer said...

Your friend Mr. Barford and Drl Dorothy King evidently disagree. See http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2015/12/dorothy-and-dealers-then-dodgies.html In any event, some oil lamps and old coins are not going to fund a terrorist army.

David Gill said...

I am aware of some of the venues visited by Barford and King and their observations were at a set moment in time.

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