Drennan, 2014, iraq syria illicit antiquities trade 141017 Felch inspiration 141127

An early report on the illicit trade in antiquities by Justine Drennan in ‘Foreign Policy’ preceded Jason Felch’s investigation (screenshot by the author via Foreign Policy)

There is significant evidence that illicit antiquities trading contributes to paramilitary funding. It does not happen everywhere, all the time, but it does happen. However, as claims become more numerous, more extraordinary, and more politicized, queries from archaeologists, criminologists, and researchers/journalists become more urgent, and the denials of antiquities collector-dealers — and their advisors, representatives, and lobbyists — become more pressing.

It had been claimed that antiquities looting was the Islamic State’s second-largest income stream, but investigative journalist Jason Felch found out that was actually an inference from the value of all commodity looting to a different Islamist paramilitary. When he did, an antiquities trade journalist and representative asked if she could republish his report in English and German on an antiquities dealers’ association’s website and in two antiquities collectors’ websites. She explained that she wanted “to spread authentic news” because “the rumor is scattered across the globe and the speculations are going on.”

Ursula Kampmann, the journalist for CoinsWeekly and MünzenWoche and the Cultural Property Commissioner for the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA), complained of “a kind of a shit storm [in Germany] against the antiquity trade all based on the Guardian article of June 15, 2014 that the IS is financed by the antiquity trade.” At least from outside, the (or a far larger) “shit storm” seemed to be driven by a Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) documentary, which was the result of a four-year-long international investigation, and which directly implicated the German market in the Syrian trade.

Kampmann commented that “German journalist[s] ha[d] checked all 160 data carriers [USB memory sticks]” that the Guardian had discussed and roughly translated part of the unnamed journalists’ unlinked report: “Where does the money come from? There have been a lot of speculations about art smuggling, income from kidnapping and selling oil. Nothing about this topic can be found in the records.” It was implied that Martin Chulov’s Guardian report was false. By that logic, the German journalists would have disproved not only the claims that the Islamic State was making money from antiquities trafficking, but also the claims that it was making money from kidnapping and illicit oil trading.

It is true that two German journalists, Georg Mascolo and Volkmar Kabisch, and an Iraqi journalist, Amir Musawy, wrote that question and answer: “But where does the money come from? Much has been speculated about art smuggling, kidnapping or income from the sale of oil. About those, no information is found in the documents.” Elsewhere, Kampmann had shared the original quotation and named one of the authors, the newspaper and the date of publication.

However, Mascolo, Kabisch and Musawy had not checked all 160 memory sticks, and they explicitly stated that they had not. “After four trips and long conversations with senior government officials in Baghdad, Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR [Westdeutscher Rundfunk] were able to take part of the material for inspection.”

Likewise, the privileged media organisations explained in their English-language press release that “the Iraqi government [had] made some of the documents available to NDR, WDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung.” The fact that there is no information on antiquities trafficking in this tiny portion of the data does not in any way imply that there is no information on antiquities trafficking anywhere else in the data.

Furthermore, according to the German foreign intelligence service, Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the Islamic State “has a perhaps-more-than-a-billion dollar fortune. But the inner workings of that State could usually only be speculated upon. Until now. Now, through the secret archives of the slain Minister of War, al-Bilawi, more than ever before can be learned about the work of the group that terrifies humanity. The documents confirm much that has been suspected and add many details.”

I had already privately verified that Chulov had a genuine source. The key question, then, was whether his source provided genuine (and representative) data. Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR gained independent access to the data through the Iraqi government, spoke to a number of senior government officials and secured official comment from Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Adnan Al-Assadi. And, during their analysis, they consulted outside experts such as security professor Peter Neumann. So, they verified the existence of the records and the authenticity of the data.

They may even have secured an explanation for the lack of more detailed information on antiquities trafficking. “Deputy Interior Minister Al-Assadi told SZ, much of the archive must remain secret ‘due to ongoing operations.’”

While verification specifically of the antiquities trafficking data is still absolutely necessary, the verification of these other data, from the same set, lends credibility to the claim that the Islamic State has made thirty six million dollars from antiquities trafficking. The question then becomes, once more, whether the IS is trafficking literally unbelievable quantities of material, or whether IS agents are late middlemen who operate close to the market end of the conflict antiquities trade and the $36m is a larger proportion of the final sale price (or whether there was a misunderstanding and more mundane criminal activities form a larger proportion of its income).

Regardless of the answer, profits from the sales of conflict antiquities are clearly partly underwriting Islamic State operations, and thus partly underwriting repression, war and genocide. And regardless of the precise numbers, that reality reinforces the need for cultural property protection, antiquities trade regulation and powerful policing.

All translations by the author.

Sam Hardy is an archaeologist who researches the illicit trade in antiquities, the destruction of cultural property, and cultural heritage labour at times of crisis and conflict. He teaches in Rome and...