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.