PARISAntiquities are being pillaged at an "alarming" rate in Iraq and Syria, a part of the world where Western civilization effectively began, as the terrorist group ISIS turns to cultural trafficking as yet another way to finance its violent ambitions.

The situation has prompted UNESCO, the United Nations' culture agency, to make a new urgent proposal to fight this profitable branch of international crime, as evidence has emerged of ISIS selling stolen items through highly developed international networks.

The problem has intensified since ISIS took over the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the Nineveh province last June. That gave it access to 2,000 of the 12,000 registered archeological sites in Iraq, which the Islamist group has not hesitated to damage, destroy or pillage, indifferent to their cultural or religious worth.

"These terrorists also destroy many holy places and pick up scattered pieces," says Béatrice André-Salvini, head of the Paris Louvre's eastern antiquities department. "They stop at nothing." 

Following their strictly narrow interpretations of religion, ISIS operatives won't tolerate any type of veneration of the dead, shrines, mosques or churches, and may well have burned thousands of precious documents and manuscripts. In Syria, especially in northwestern provinces, there has been an exponential rise in clandestine digging and stripping from monuments. While about 30 museums have preemptively hidden away their artefacts, many works of art have nonetheless disappeared. 

"Wars have always been periods of decimation for national patrimony," says Jean-Francois Charnier, scientific director for the Agence France-Muséums and head of the Louvre project in Abu Dhabi. "You're dealing with local gangs linked to warlords, passing these goods onto fairly unscrupulous buyers, to Turkish, Syrian, Jordanian, Iranian, Iraqi or Lebanese traders, or go-betweens acting as links with Europe or the United States."

Museums like the Louvre or the British Museum began to be offered antiquities of unknown provenance from the time of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. "They would tell us, 'I picked this item up on a site,' or, 'It was in our family.' We would refuse, and after awhile nothing more arrived," says the Louvre's André-Salvini. "Now, everything is moving around under the table."

In 2003, during the second Gulf war, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) drafted a red list of major antiquities stolen in Iraq. "The idea was to draw attention to what was on the market," says France Desmarais, head of programs and partnerships at ICOM.

According to Edouard Planche, an anti-trafficking specialist at UNESCO, traffickers are interested in antiquities of all types and sizes. Elaborate chain-like procedures have been developed to "shift" these items. Pieces are first kept locally before being taken to art markets in neighboring countries.

"The stages are multiplied to hide their tracks," André-Salvini says. "During ransacking in 2003, major works that were very difficult to sell were buried on farms outside Baghdad and began to emerge much later, bit by bit."

Huge sums

Planche confirms that the time it takes for these artefacts to reach the market will often be measured in years. "Stuff coming out of Syria and Iraq often goes through Turkey, despite checks there, before going to the London, Swiss, French and American markets."

Just how much has been ransacked is difficult to say. Illegal trading in antiquities is one of the biggest markets in the world, alongside drugs and arms. "The sums involved are considerable, perhaps ranging from six to 15 billion euros a year," Planche says. "So while ancient Syrian and Iraqi coins are not worth more than 100 to 200 euros apiece, multiply this by thousands and sell them on Internet auction sites, and you see the scale."

A cuneiform tablet can fetch 5,000 to 10,000 euros, statuettes, hundreds of thousands of euros and little seals between 50,000 and 100,000 euros. Some pieces are priceless, says André-Salvini, but the majority of items fetch "between a few hundred euros and 200,000 euros."

In 2007, when American troops were still a presence in Mosul. Photo: U.S. Army

Meanwhile, she says, the potential for profits has fueled the rise of "workshops making fake ancient figurines and items that are easily moved like stamps and seals with figurative scenes from the Sumerian period. As there are real items among them, the fakes become covers for authentic pieces."

France Desmarais has no doubt that this trade is financing ISIS activities, through pillaging that is either "opportunist, commissioned or authorized." Planche says terrorist groups may even hire professional archaeologists "who tell them where to look. They then issue excavation permits and tax the transfer." It's not easy to track such pieces, he says, when they come from sites that have not been excavated or listed. 

Who buys the stolen art? Not the big museums, says André-Salvini, as they are committed to keeping their collections "clean." The new museums sprouting up by the Persian Gulf? "That would assure a diplomatic incident with neighboring states," she adds, observing that the Louvre in Abu Dhabi follows the same norms as the Louvre itself.

France Desmarais says "private collectors buy them, the Gulf and Bangkok being crucial hubs in this trade, and there are new players in Russia, China, Japan and the Gulf joining the Europeans and the Americans." She notes that "little auction houses, antique dealers and underground Internet sites" are the typical sellers of illegal artefacts, while the major auction houses keep their distance just as the established museums do.

Christophe Kunicki, an antiquities expert, says he has not seen anything at public auctions because "the actors are being very careful," and sales catalogues can be viewed online. Anne-Marie Kevorkian, an Islamic arts dealer, also says she has seen no suspicious objects in France, while citing Switzerland or the United Kingdom as more likely places for such dealings. 

Despite the collaboration of many states in principle, and treaties and UN resolutions meant to fight trafficking in antiquities, relatively few resources are currently devoted to what is a fast-moving and global trade. Certain countries such as Russia and China are not entirely cooperative, while traffickers are able to elude tightened checks in certain countries by finding other transit routes. One example cited is the trajectory of cuneiform tablets stolen from Baghdad in 2003 and found in Peru more than six years later. 

While certain states await the return of political stability, there have been initiatives to temporarily safeguard their treasures, like the Afghan Museum-in-Exile in Switzerland.

Beyond the financial implications, there is also the damage that such thefts inflict on memory and history itself, which ISIS welcomes. "For the sake of knowledge, it is a disaster," says Jean-Luc Martinez, the Louvre director. "The objects stolen from sites that have yet to be registered are removed from their scientific context."

His colleague, Béatrice André-Salvini, adds, "some of the excavations in Iraq are done by bulldozers, which means certain information is lost forever."