ISIS has found a new way to fill its coffers — through the illegal transfer, trade and sale of artwork that is plundered in the war-torn regions of Iraq and Syria.
The terrorist organization is now a growing player in the $3 billion global antiquities market, according to a Bloomberg Business report. Whether buyers are aware of it or not, they are filling the extremists’ coffers.
When U.S.-led airstrikes destroyed ISIS’ refineries and tankers, reducing the group’s $1 million daily oil revenue significantly, the self-declared caliphate turned to looting artwork as a way to raise needed cash. Most of the sales are reportedly made online via eBay, Facebook and Whatsapp.
According to one antiquities expert, the group has set up a government branch known as the “archaeological administration,” near the Turkish border, which manages loots and sales.
“They bring in their own trucks, their own bulldozers, hire their own work crews and pay them salaries,” the expert said.
The U.S. State Department says that Islamic State acts as a supplier for a complex chain involving at least five brokers and dealers. One of their fundraising methods is collecting a 20 percent tax from diggers and dealers operating on their territory. They also apparently run their own digs and trades.
Turkish crime networks around bordering towns with Syria, are key players in this illegal ISIS artwork trade. According to the Bloomberg report, “Once the artifacts are smuggled into Turkey, a broker will cash them for resale to dealers who have pockets deep enough to pay for storage and wait up to 15 years to sell, when law enforcement is less focused on them.”
James McAndrew — a former Dept. of Homeland Security employee – says he doesn’t expect major artifacts looted by Islamic State to emerge in New York, London and Geneva for at least a decade. “Shady dealers sit on smuggled items for years to launder the provenance before trying to sell them for lump sums,” he said. McAndrew says the challenge is monitoring private sales, which are driving the global antiquities market. “I’m pretty confident those pieces from Iraq and Syria are being sold to locals in the region — wealthy Saudis, Emiratis, Iranians,” he said.
A big concern, say Homeland Security experts, is that these items will end up in freeports, or tax-free storage spaces at international airports that don’t require passage through customs.
Meantime, the UN Security Council has adopted a resolution banning the sale of antiquities from Syria and Iraq. Also, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation making it illegal to sell looted artifacts from Syria.
Some experts believe that the only way to stop this is with physical intervention. For example, borders need to be secured to stop the outflow of the illegally obtained artifacts.
Unfortunately, many say that as long as the war continues this is just another consequence that people will have to live with. Amr Al Azm, an anthropology professor from Ohio, says “re-establishing rule of law is fundamental to combating exploitation of cultural heritage and there is no sign of that.” Al Azm says, “Just like everyone is an aspiring actor in L.A., everyone in Syria and Iraq is a dealer in some trafficked goods. The people won’t stop hustling until the war ends.”
Still, people like Christopher Marinello with Art Recovery — who spent more than 20 years recapturing Nazi-looted art — thinks this battle can be won.
Academics and art experts are now working on an inventory of cultural goods that need to be protected from illicit trafficking, according to the report.