Middle East

The art detective fighting to save Syria's past

The Temple of Bel in Palmyra after a large explosion destroyed the main building Image copyright AP
Image caption The UN cultural agency, Unesco, has condemned the destruction at Palmyra as a war crime

Syria's cultural heritage is being attacked from all sides: the Assad regime, opportunistic looters, opposition forces, so-called Islamic State fighters and even Russian air strikes.

Ancient sites like Palmyra have suffered destruction, and it is feared that hundreds of precious valuables have been smuggled out of the country to be sold on the international art market.

Art specialist Christopher Marinello is chief executive of the Art Recovery Group, which has retrieved US$500m (£330m) of stolen and looted works of art over the past decade.

He spoke to the BBC World Service Inquiry programme about what can be done to help stop the theft of the country's precious antiquities.

"We've been aware of smuggled goods from Syria for some time. As a lawyer in New York, I represented a lot of galleries, auction houses and dealers that had problems bringing items in and out of the United States. So I was very aware of the smuggling routes that take place, and the traffic that is involved with antiquities.

"What's happened now is Isis and other people are taking advantage of the war in Syria to tap into these markets and sell their goods on a worldwide basis.

"You've got some very poor people doing the digging, and selling to a middleman who moves the objects on to Lebanon, through Beirut into Turkey and then into the Western world. We've heard reports of Isis taxing the trade, up to around 20%.

"The number one funding for Isis is oil, and after that, kidnapping and ransom demands. When they don't have access to those, they look for something else, and the antiquities in their backyard have provided a natural source for income.

Image copyright Unosat
Image caption Satellite image of Palmyra showing destruction of the Temple of Bel in August 2015

"Stopping this crisis requires a multi-faceted approach, where number one is [to] stop the war. Number two is to increase awareness of collectors and dealers and auction houses not to purchase material that has no provenance.

"We are just one small portion of the solution: we run the Art Claim database. We have donated our services to museums and anyone on the ground who wants to identify works that are being looted. A museum can download its entire collection and say 'put this on your database; if anything ever appears in the marketplace, it's not authorised to be sold'.

"As soon as the conflict happened in Syria, we reached out to our contacts on the ground to put everything they could on the database, even before it was stolen.

Syria's riches

  • Syria's oldest sites date back 5,000 years, to the Early Bronze Age
  • It has more than 10,000 Mesopotamian tells or archaeological mounds
  • Syria has six Unesco World Heritage Sites: Ancient city of Damascus, Site of Palmyra, Ancient city of Bosra, Ancient city of Aleppo, Krak des Chevaliers / Saladin's Castle, Ancient Byzantine villages of Northern Syria
  • Twelve more Syrian sites are on Unesco's list for future consideration

"Once a looted object is reported to us, it goes onto the database. Then we check the sales catalogues of all the major auction houses. We've got teams of people checking eBay, Amazon, other sale venues. We're also a very sophisticated searchable database with visual recognition software, so dealers and collectors contact us and say 'I'm about to buy something' or 'someone's approached me with something. Should I buy it? Is it on your database?'

"The first thing we look at is the provenance. Where did you get it from? Do you have a receipt? Was there a history that was given to you? We can't always rely on it because we've known the smugglers to falsify provenance information. But we look at what was given. And we're pretty adept at determining whether it's legitimate or not or whether it was made up or whether it's completely absent.

"We then notify the authorities. We are a free service to law enforcement. They know that if they place objects on our database, we will tell them where they are. We turn over all the information. I'm about to go to Venice at the invitation of the Italian government, and that follows Poland and Romania and Bulgaria and other governments.

"We have several hundred thousand objects on our database, and that's only since March, 2015. It's growing exponentially. The FBI database has just 15,000 objects. The Interpol database has about 40,000 objects. The Italian police have a fantastic database, and next year they will be changing it to work with Interpol.

Image copyright AP
Image caption IS regards statues as idolatrous

"But they're not actually checking the marketplace the way we are. They don't have the funds to do that. They don't have the manpower.

"The Italians have done it right: they've got 300 officers dedicated to art crime. But let's look at the United States: a 320 million population with just 16 FBI agents in the art crime team. And they're also assigned to bomb duty as well.

"Here in London there are just a handful of in the art crime unit. They are overworked, underpaid and the whole department could use an overhaul.

"We've noticed a big jump in dealers and collectors checking with us, and that is evidence of fear.

"In the US, the FBI has issued a declaration that anybody who is found to have been purchasing looted Syrian objects could be prosecuted under a US Federal Law about funding international terrorism. That's pretty scary.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionJeremy Bowen speaks to two of Syria's "Monuments Men"

"We've seen some wild reports that the markets are being flooded with this material, but we haven't seen the really high-end antiquities getting here. We know of a recent container that was seized here in the UK with a great deal of Syrian looted objects on it, and I can't go too much beyond that because it's a current investigation here in the UK.

"But other than that container, we're seeing a lot of low-level material, and a lot of fakes. A lot of people are trying to take advantage of the situation and send fakes through and pretend that they're real.

"The better, more reputable auction houses do not want to sell this type of material in their sales room. It's the lower to mid-level dealer that [poses the risk]. It's that way with fine art as well: you always have those people who are looking to get a good deal without asking any questions.

"That's a big threat because it creates a market, and as long as there's a market for this type of illicit and looted material, it's going to be dug out of the ground. And when you have a situation like we have in Syria - where the government is near collapse, and there's no authority to really stop the export of this type of material - you have chaos."

The Inquiry is broadcast on the BBC World Service on Tuesdays from 12:05 GMT/13:05 BST. Listen online or download the podcast.

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