Too much unsubstantiated propaganda is clouding the issue of looted antiquities and ISIL and diverting attention away from the real problems in Syria and Iraq
I have recently agreed to become a policy and media adviser to the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) and have been conducting a similar role with the Antiquities Dealers Association in the UK over the past few months.
I am very interested in antiquities and admire the dedication and scholarship of the wider professional community that surrounds them, from dealers and curators to academics.
However, my chief reason for taking on these roles has been to see what I can do to counter the frankly appalling and inflammatory journalism surrounding antiquities that has arisen out of the Syria and Iraq crisis.
A number of pressure groups have sprung up, seemingly from nowhere, that appear to be well funded and run by people of intelligence. However, it also appears that their main purpose is to blacken the name of the legitimate trade in antiquities in a bid to have the entire global trade shut down.
If that is the case, then they are effectively exploiting the Syrian and Iraqi tragedy in the most cynical and disgraceful manner.
Many media outlets have been complicit in this trend, not just giving over column inches and airtime to what is little more than propaganda, but also happily promoting statistics referring to the value of looted antiquities without once checking their source or validity.
In addition, a multitude of claims that recently looted material from Syria and Iraq is on the open market in London gain credence from being promoted as fact in these articles, when the detail shows far less certainty.
How many arrests so far?
I would like to know exactly how much material has been seized in London and shown to be unequivocally recently looted from ISIL controlled areas. I would also like to know how many arrests have been made in connection with this, especially where they have resulted in charges being brought.
So far I have heard of none and do not know anyone else who has been able to quote a single instance.
One recent BBC article, for instance, referred to “a recent container that was seized here in the UK with a great deal of Syrian looted objects on it”. Further investigation has now revealed that no antiquities were present at all, but the story is out there and the damage done.
In the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry offered a $5m reward on September 29 for information that led to the disruption in ISIL’s sale of oil and antiquities.
That was more than two months ago. If the presence of looted antiquities is as widespread in the US as some have argued, why has this reward not been claimed? If it has been, they are keeping the fact quiet.
I have already pointed out, in my earlier blog post, Less box ticking, more research – the survey and statistics crisis, how the bogus $3 billion figure, given as the value of the global trade in looted antiquities, came to prominence.
Articles continue to quote it, while none provides a source for it.
At least one person I have spoken to who is well versed in what has been going on told me that campaigners quote this figure not because they believe it to be true but because it attracts more funding for them if the problem appears bigger than it is.
Exactly who is writing these articles?
Where, it strikes me, media outlets have been equally irresponsible, has been in the lack of clarity surrounding the identity of who is behind many of these articles.
Independent journalists certainly write some of them, but a significant number are the work of campaigners who are self-avowed anti trade.
However, their bylines are presented in the same manner as staff reporters, and while they may add the name of the organisation they work for, I have yet to see a single article that explains what those organisations do.
Because of this, what is effectively the view of a biased pressure group is presented as independent reporting, reinforcing what is often no more than disingenuous propaganda.
Why does all this matter?
Because it diverts attention away from the real problems.
Let’s be clear about this. ISIL/Daesh is a menace and needs to be dealt with. Anyone trading in recently looted antiquities from areas controlled by them or by the Assad regime needs to be stopped and punished.
Let’s be clear, too, that this is also the view of the legitimate trade in London and overseas, none of whom want to be tainted by association with crooks.
The ADA are spending a huge amount of time and effort upgrading not just their code of conduct, but all of their procedures to ensure all members abide by truly robust due diligence and co-operate with the authorities as required. They are playing a very active role in a number of initiatives from Government level down to tackle the crisis, and are also strengthening ties with the hugely under-resourced Scotland Yard Art and Antiques Squad to see how they can support it.
The IADAA have also embarked on a programme of improvements and proactive protection against wrongdoing.
Both associations recognise the seriousness of the threat not just to the legitimate trade globally, but also to world peace. And both have acted immediately, unprompted.
All-Party Parliamentary Group aims to tackle ISIL/antiquities issue
A new All-Party Parliamentary Group to tackle the ISIL/antiquities issue will be chaired by Lord Renfrew, the pre-eminent anti trade campaigner in the UK over the past two decades and more. He will be joined by Lord Inglewood, the President of the British Art Market Federation, and Victoria Borwick, formerly Fairs Director at Olympia and Deputy Mayor of London, and currently Kensington MP, President of the British Antique Dealers Association and self-proclaimed Westminster champion for the art and antiques industry. It seems a fair balance.
Others from the world of curating and academe will also take part in various roles.
This opportunity for co-operation is a real tonic and one that should not be wasted, and neither should a similar initiative just announced for London by its Mayor, Boris Johnson, which will also involve the legitimate trade.
Another longstanding opponent of the trade in antiquities has been Neil Brodie, now a Senior Research Fellow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow.
To say that leading members of the legitimate trade have been critics of much of what he has had to say over the years would be putting it mildly.
However, he has just published an article, which, to my mind, is the most measured assessment of the ISIL looted antiquities issue I have read. At last we have someone who takes a cold hard look at the real figures and comes to some surprising conclusions.
It is a must-read.
The wider importance of the trade
To round off, I think it is important for people to understand why having a healthy legitimate antiquities trade is important.
William G Pearlstein puts the case eloquently with regard to the United States in his 2013 White Paper: A proposal to reform US law and policy relating to the International exchange of cultural property. His arguments are equally applicable to the United Kingdom and Europe, and shed light on why Germany will be all the poorer for the ill-advised Cultural Property Protection Act it has just passed. This is what he has to say:
“The stakes are high for U.S. museums, private collectors and the art trade as a whole. The United States has thousands of museums and cultural institutions dedicated to research, conservation, and exhibition of art to the public. Almost all U.S. museums depend on donations of artwork by private individuals and institutions to enrich their collections and make their educational mission possible.
“This object-based philanthropy is made possible only by the existence of a private market.
“Overwhelmingly, the ultimate destination of U.S. private collections is public institutions, which receive these collections through charitable donations or bequests. Under the U.S. system in which private donations are the primary source of funding and accession for public institutions, museums cannot perform their obligations to research, conserve, and exhibit artworks without a vigorous art market.
“This public-private partnership has given the United States the finest museum system in the world; this system is at risk from the hostile U.S. legal environment governing the antiquities trade.
“Also at risk are the characteristically American values on which the CPIA was premised: that global access to art, art preservation and uncensored learning and study about art are in the public interest; that these are facilitated by the lawful international exchange of art and antiquities; that museums, scholars, archaeologists, private collectors, dealers, auction houses, and the general public benefit from cultural policies that facilitate the lawful transfer of art and antiquities; and that U.S. cultural life is harmed by laws and policies that do not.”