Illegal Antiquities

Is Art Theft Funding Islamic State?

"Heritage in Peril: Iraq and Syria," currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Source: DPA
"Heritage in Peril: Iraq and Syria" is currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The illegal trade in ancient cultural objects from Syria might be financing Islamic terrorists.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • A television film focuses on how antiquities wind up illegally in German auction houses and art dealerships.
    • An E.U. regulation forbids the sale and export of any historical and archaeological cultural assets that were removed illegally from Syria.
    • Germany’s culture minister is working on ways to reduce illegal trade in antiquities.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Members of the so-called Islamic State are not only brutally killing their enemies and those they deem unbelievers; the terrorists are also obliterating art relics from the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia and Assyria. And it seems IS is also using antiquities taken from illegal excavations to finance its activities in Syria and Iraq. That, at least, is the assertion of a film made for Germany’s ARD public television station.

Islamic State is only the start of a long trafficking chain that streches across Turkey and via many intermediaries. Germany is reportedly a popular market for centuries-old small sculptures, cylinder seals and vases. The objects are winding up illegally in German auction houses and art dealerships.

The ARD film by Volkmar Kabisch and Andreas Wolter focuses on a clay chariot sold by Munich-based auction house Gorny & Mosch in June. In all probability, the clay sculpture, which fetched a price at auction of €3,000 ($3,817), originated from an illegal excavation.

“Our supplier, a New Yorker known to us, purchased the object about two years ago for €500 at a market in Germany where coins and antiques are traded,” said Gorny & Mosch’s Dieter Gorny, adding that the chariot did not appear on any search list.

Germany is reportedly a popular market for centuries-old small sculptures, cylinder seals and vases.

The auction house is “on record and the Bavarian authorities are doing nothing,” said Mr. Cahn, an antiquities dealer from Basel and chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, which includes ethical antiquities dealers from around the world and many from Germany. Gorny & Mosch is not a member.

Mr. Cahn is distancing himself from the auction house. He said the police should act because the ban on the illegal trade in Syrian and Iraqi cultural assets has been valid in Germany since December 13, 2013.

The most important decision by the European Union in its fight against IS terror is hidden an E.U. regulation passed last December.

The regulation, known as 1332/2013, forbids the sale and export of any historical and archaeological cultural assets that were removed illegally from Syria. An exception is supposed to apply only to objects that were verifiably exported from Syria before May 9, 2011, or are being returned to their rightful owners. The regulation also applies to Germany, without the need for additional legislation.

Nevertheless, Monika Grütters, Germany’s minister of culture, and her staff are working on a draft law to stem the tide of illegal trade in cultural assets in Germany. They are also looking at ways to strengthen a 2007 law pertaining to the return of such objects. The law has rarely been used.

It is still not clear how objects will need to be documented in the future to prevent illegal trade. Sylvelie Karfeld, responsible at the Federal Criminal Police Office for combating illegal trade in antiquities, would like to see specific documents for every object:  an excavation permit, an official inventory number, an export license and a customs document for the import to Europe to prove that an object originates from a legal excavation.

“In practice, unfortunately, this is done far too infrequently,” Ms. Karfeld said.

 

Lucas Elmenhorst is based in Berlin and writes on culture for Handelsblatt. Susanne Schreiber is based in Düsseldorf and covers the art market. To contact the authors: elmenhorst@handelsblatt.com, schreiber@handelsblatt.com.

 

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