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The Global Fight Against Black Market Antiquities Intensifies

By Maya Margit | The Media Line

July 1, 2018

Stone stele depicting Ashurbanipal (right), shown with a ritual basket on his head with cuneiform inscription, South Iraq, Marduk temple (Babylon), 668BC – 665BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum
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The British Museum is slated to open major exhibition of Assyrian artifacts as experts warn that ISIS-looted items is still a problem

While the global illegal antiquities trade might be booming, governments in several countries are increasing their efforts to combat it by refusing to borrow artifacts of dubious origin, archaeological experts told The Media Line.

The growing push for verified provenance is part of a wider trend towards “clean exhibitions” at cultural institutions, which are trying to avoid getting embroiled in legal battles and supporting looters.

“Some countries are beginning to refuse loans of major artifacts in their national collections for exhibitions that include dubious or contested antiquities,” Dr. Donna Yates, a lecturer in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime at the University of Glasgow, told The Media Line. She added that cultural institutions were also becoming increasingly cautious about borrowing potentially looted artifacts.

“If a museum requests a particular artifact for display, the Ministry of Culture [in various countries] requires a list of the other requests made for the same exhibition. If there are dubious pieces from museums or private collections on the list, the government can refuse them. It becomes a ‘soft’ way of protesting the display of loot,” Dr. Yates continued.

Some museums are facing stricter borrowing guidelines with regard to providing a historical record of an item’s ownership. The provenance of ancient artifacts is especially important to certify that the item in question was not stolen from an archaeological site or traded on the black market.

With Islamic State’s targeted destruction of numerous heritage sites across Iraq and Syria and with the growing availability of ancient items for online sale, the issue of exhibiting illicit antiquities has gained importance. The extent of the problem is such that Neil Brodie, a senior research fellow in Endangered Archaeology at the University of Oxford, estimated that of the roughly 100,000 antiquities up for sale online, up to 80 percent were either looted or fake.

“ISIS has systematically looted archaeological sites, producing a stream of antiquities sold directly over social media,” archaeologist Ticia Verveer told The Media Line. “For years, the antiquity markets, collectors and museums bought from illicit diggers.”

The notorious case of Hobby Lobby is a recent example. Hobby Lobby, an American national chain of arts and crafts stores, illegally obtained thousands of ancient artifacts from Iraq, which were seized by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Washington and returned to the Iraqi government.

“The illicit looting of ancient sites to supply the demands of the art market is a huge problem, [and this comes] at the expense of losing scientific knowledge and their contexts,” Verveer said, noting, however, that following the landmark UNESCO 1970 Convention (on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property), a museum was unlikely to touch an artifact that “doesn’t have a spotless history.”

Iraqi archaeologists train as part of the British Museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme © The Trustees of the British Museum

British Museum Exhibition Highlights Battle against ISIS Looting

The British Museum, which in November will open a major exhibition titled “I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria,” is highlighting ISIS’s destruction of Middle Eastern cultural heritages.

“The majority of the objects on display at the exhibition come from archaeological sites such as Nineveh and Nimrud, which have been systematically targeted and destroyed by ISIS,” a spokesperson for the exhibition told The Media Line.

“The exhibition will highlight the plight of Iraqi cultural heritage, from the First Gulf War to the present day, and the positive steps being taken to safeguard Iraq’s rich heritage for future generations.”

The exhibition will look at the rise of King Ashurbanipal, who ruled over the Neo-Assyrian Empire from 668 to roughly 631 BCE.

“In 668 BCE, Ashurbanipal became the most powerful person on earth. From his capital Nineveh, in present-day Iraq, he ruled a vast and diverse empire, shaping the lives of peoples from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran,” the spokesperson said, noting that the show will include many rare items from the British Museum’s extensive collection of Assyrian sculptures.

The museum has so far accepted loans of artifacts from museums in Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Yerevan (Armenia), Vatican City and Nicosia (Cyprus). It has not reached out to the Iraqi government and its State Board of Antiquities to borrow antiquities, but negotiations are underway for additional loans from Iran, the museum said.

Importantly, the show will also focus on the museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, a UK government-supported program which has helped train Iraqi archaeologists to save heritage sites under threat.

“The scheme, which became a pilot project for the Cultural Protection Fund, builds capacity in the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage by training 50 of its staff in a wide variety of sophisticated techniques of retrieval and rescue archaeology,” the museum explained.

While Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State last December, pockets of resistance remain in eastern Syria and western Iraq. In addition, despite the terrorist group’s weakened status, archaeologists believe antiquities looting linked to ISIS will continue to be a major problem facing collectors and museums in decades to come, as more and more looted ancient treasures resurface.

“There were culturally destructive activities by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but antiquities looting is a more globally widespread problem,” Verveer told The Media Line. “This illegal trade will not disappear with the disappearance of ISIS.”

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