You're reading


Art historians have their hearts in their mouth. Again.

Advancing across Iraq and Syria, Islamic State militants are pulverising millennia-old cultural treasures and posting films of the destruction online. With their black flag newly raised over Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, it is feared IS will soon lay waste to this ancient oasis city in the Syrian desert.

What they don’t destroy may end up on the black market and purchased by collectors — some knowing about the illegitimate origins, but a few perhaps unaware or misled by fraudulent documentation.

“We’ve seen reports of ISIS destroying objects for propaganda value but in reality they know that the objects have real value and they will move them on into the marketplace,” said Chris Marinello, chief executive officer of Art Recovery International in London, which identifies and oversees the recovery of stolen, missing and disputed cultural property. “We saw this with the Nazis. Rather than destroy degenerate art taken from Jewish families, the Nazis sold it.”

The spectacular colonnaded ruins, known as the “Venice of the Sands”, have been designated a World Heritage Site by United Nations cultural agency UNESCO. In the 17th and 18 centuries, glowing reports from European travellers of the desert city’s unique blend of Graeco-Roman and Persian styles helped inspire the neo-classical revival in the West, so that Palmyra’s influence resonates around the globe, from Paris to Washington DC to Buenos Aires.

When objects looted by IS start to surface there likely will be everything from coins to clay tablets, small bronzes and figurative objects, and also larger architectural objects such as mosaic tile floors or wall pieces, said Laura Doyle, national fine art specialist at Chubb Insurance in New York.

Antiquities stolen from the Iraqi National Museum during the US intervention in Iraq in 2003. (Credit: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

“The FBI estimates that there is about $6b of art and artefacts that are stolen annually and only about 10% of that is recovered,” Doyle said.

So, with aerial photography revealing ongoing plundering, how can collectors guard against buying illicit valuables from Palmyra and elsewhere?

First, begin by establishing without a doubt where an item originated. Fortunately, there are tools to help everyone from the high-end gallery owner to the eBay buyer.

“People like to say ‘Does it have dirt on it? Does it look like it came from Syria?’ but the big question is ‘What’s the provenance?’,” Marinello said.

The provenance, or history of ownership, establishes when an item was removed from a country, exactly where it came from and who owned it previously, explained Doyle. “Dealers might be able to provide some background, but particularly when you are dealing with war-torn countries that have had a lot of documented looting it’s really critical that you understand the history of the piece,” she said.

Ancient Iraqi clay reliefs that were smuggled out of Iraq into the US. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Establishing provenance protects buyers both when they purchase — and when they later wish to sell an item.

Lists of stolen and looted works are kept by law enforcement agencies such as the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol and by privately run databases such as Art Claim, compiled by Art Recovery International, and The Art Loss Register. Much of Interpol’s database can be consulted free online, as can the International Council of Museums’ Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.

Auction records are often listed online, too, so that you can work backwards to trace ownership, said Doyle. However in cases of uncertainty, she added, the best option is to consult an independent third party, such as Art Recovery International, The Art Loss Register and ArtBanc.

As part of their checking service, Art Recovery International has inspected images of works taken during the Iraq war and Egypt’s Arab Spring conflict, said Marinello. When their research uncovers illegality a certificate of clearance is refused and the appropriate authorities informed, he said.

If you already own an object you suspect may be looted, experts suggest you contact a lawyer or local law enforcement for guidance. Alternatively, you can contact a private organisation like Art Recovery Group who will liaise with law enforcement on your behalf while maintaining confidentiality.

Columns in the ancient city of Palmyra. (Credit: Niek Bokkers/Getty Images)

How they’re smuggled out

Artefacts taken from the Middle East are typically dug up by poverty-stricken local people familiar with the ancient sites, said Marinello. They receive a pittance from middle men who use time-honoured smuggling routes from Syria and Egypt into the Lebanon and through Turkey to reach collectors in the US, UK, Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy, he added.

On the black market, objects known to be looted change hands at a significant discount of their true value, he said.

In the past, unwitting buyers might have been hoodwinked. But the proliferation of information available on the internet now means it is scarcely credible for collectors to plead ignorance of suspect origins.

“Anybody who would be buying these objects is obviously buying with the knowledge that there is a problem, and with total disregard,” said Marinello. “They can fully expect they will lose their investment, if not have their object seized and possibly face criminal penalties down the line,

The legitimate trade is not touching this stuff. This is radioactive material.”

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Around the bbc