Don't Accidentally Buy Artefacts Stolen By IS Says FBI

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

The FBI has a warning for all you antique dealers and museum curators out there: If you’re trading in Syrian or Iraqi pieces right now, you could be funding the IS.

A notice released by the FBI cautions dealers and curators that IS has been carrying out “industrial-level looting at Syrian and Iraqi archaeological sites,” and that stolen goods are now arriving in the US. “We now have credible reports that U.S. persons have been offered cultural property that appears to have been removed from Syria and Iraq recently,” writes the manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program, Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, in a statement pointed out by Hyperallergic this week. In a podcast, she put out a call to dealers: “Ask questions. Check history of ownership. Make sure they were imported legally into the United States. Verify the information. And deal with reputable dealers.”

But the FBI isn’t just interested in stopping the outpouring of cultural heritage from countries under the control of ISIS—they’re warning US-based dealers because there are serious criminal penalties involved. Buying a piece, even inadvertently, from IS could be prosecuted as aiding a terrorist organisation over in the US. And member countries of the UN must, under a new resolution, “take steps to prevent terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria from receiving donations and from benefiting from trade in oil, antiquities, and hostages.”

According to the Antiquities Coalition, this kind of alert is pretty rare for the FBI. “This commendable action by the FBI—which to our knowledge is unprecedented—further confirms that the illicit antiquities trade is funding crime and conflict around the globe,” the Coalition wrote yesterday, adding that the UN will host a forum on the growing cultural crisis next month.

Systematic, Industrial-Scale Looting

The FBI’s wording is perhaps the most startling thing about the alert. What does “industrial-scale looting” look like, exactly? Across these conflict zones, it looks like sprawling, systematic excavation at heritage sites that were once protected.

This is distinct from the Islamic State’s widely publicized destruction of heritage sites, most recently the demolition of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO site where IS detonated a series of explosives this week. It’s also different from the public beheading of a Syrian archaeologist and scholar amidst the ruins of Palmyra earlier this month. While those public acts of terrorism were clearly wielded as propaganda, these widespread excavations seem to be aimed at selling the objects uncovered. This profit-focused looting is being done at a scale that is visible from space, and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has cobbled together some examples of the looting.

Their first example is Dura Europos, an ancient city on the Euphrates and controlled at various points by both Greek and Roman groups. As the Bureau points out, it has huge significance thanks to its many temples and its synagogue–the discovery of which would “ultimately reshape ideas about both synagogue architecture and the Jewish religion itself,” as one historian writes. Here’s what Dura Europos looked like in 2012, before the looting.

FBI: Don't Accidentally Buy Artifacts Stolen By ISIS

Now, it’s “covered in looting pits,” the scale of which can be comprehended by the detail:

FBI: Don't Accidentally Buy Artifacts Stolen By ISIS

How about an even older site, Mari, which dates back to 3000 BC? Mari, which sits on the eastern edge of Syria, was once a bustling centre of trade—since it was discovered in the 1930s, archaeologists have uncovered remarkable finds, like 25,000 clay tablets and the remains of a palace, which you can see marked on this image from 2012:

FBI: Don't Accidentally Buy Artifacts Stolen By ISIS

What’s horrible, in Mari’s case, is that the majority of the city hadn’t yet been excavated. Work was still underway. Today it’s surrounded by gaping holes, where looters have sunk pits to extract the artefacts that remained to be uncovered by archaeologists:

FBI: Don't Accidentally Buy Artifacts Stolen By ISIS

It’s awful to see these sites being looted before they can be fully documented, studied, and understood—now, as the FBI says, bits and pieces of their history are being pushed into the world at large for profit.

At the very least, the FBI is notifying the dealers who are in the market for antiquities that they could be held responsible for aiding a terrorist organisation. But like the conviction of a 17-year-old American who was sentenced to jail for tweeting pro-ISIS sentiments, prosecuting Americans for supporting ISIS or ISIL is a complicated matter itself—and it may do little to stem the looting being done at these sites.