Stefania Fumo -
Amid the show executions, terrorist attacks and wanton destruction associated with IS’s fiefdom in Iraq and Syria, it’s sometimes hard to lose track of the irreversible damage the group is committing against the region’s cultural heritage.
Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini wants to change that, placing the fight against trafficking in plundered art at the top of the agenda at the first-ever meeting of culture ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) group of industrialised nations.
“I film the destruction, then I turn the cameras off and try to sell what I plundered on the black market, in order to finance terrorism,” Franceschini said, describing the way IS tries to make money off the work, using threats of terrorists smashing ancient statues with sledgehammers.
Promoted by Italy, the summit is to be attended by the culture ministers of Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the US, plus the EU and Unesco, and the Italian art squad — the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection force. The US State Department lists “looting, antiquities theft and smuggling” among the sources of IS funding, along with oil smuggling, kidnapping for ransom, and human trafficking. The connection between looted antiquities and terrorism was first confirmed by IS documents seized during a 2015 US raid in Syria, which turned up receipts totalling $25,000 for three separate antiquities sales.
IS had set up its own so-called Department of Precious Resources that issued dig “licenses,” according to Aymenn Jawadal Tamimi, a researcher, who analysed the IS documents seized in the raid. It’s difficult to put a monetary value on this black market trade because the black market itself has changed, said archaeology professor Frances Pinnock, from Rome’s La Sapienza University. Before the US invasion of Iraq, looted antiquities would eventually resurface in the legitimate market — in a museum or a private collection, or on the auction, which put a price tag on them.
Now, said Pinnock, these items are funnelled directly into the same flow of “product” as the drugs, arms, and people trafficking networks.
Pinnock, who spent years on international archaeological missions in Syria before the civil war broke out in 2011, pointed out that increased public awareness is key to combating this type of trafficking, much as other campaigns have raised public awareness of endangered wildlife.
Interpol, in conjunction with ICOM, publishes “wanted” posters of missing Middle Eastern items and “Red Lists” of antiquities at risk of having been looted, so that the public and law enforcement can learn to recognize them. — dpa