In Brief

FBI Warns of ISIS-Looted Artifacts Hitting the US Market

Satellite imagery of a 150-acre site in Syria dating to 300 B.C., in 2012 (left) and in 2014 when covered by looters' pits (right) (images via Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs)
Satellite imagery of a 150-acre site in Syria dating to 300 BCE in 2012 (left) and in 2014 (right), where it appears covered by looters’ pits (images via Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs)

Antiquities looted by terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria are entering the art market, prompting the FBI to release a flyer soliciting dealers’ and collectors’ help in halting illegal trade. The one-page document, posted on the Bureau’s website Wednesday, specifically addresses art and antiquities market leaders, calling on them to spread a message of caution to all their associates as the US art market may be affected by such sales.

“We now have credible reports that US persons have been offered cultural property that appears to have been removed from Syria and Iraq recently,” Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program, said in a statement.

The flyer, titled “ISIL Antiquities Trafficking,” features a number of photographs of previously confiscated antiquities above a list of tips. The advice reminds dealers and collectors to remain wary when buying items from Syria and Iraq; it also states the legal ramifications of purchasing a looted artifact — which essentially amount to funding a terrorist group. The significance of cultural objects as currency to ISIS is especially evident after the execution of Palmyra’s former chief of antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, who had refused to share information on the whereabouts of invaluable artifacts with the terrorist group.

“Individuals and institutions in the trade, professional, and academic communities have been instrumental in the success of many FBI cultural property investigations and their continued input and cooperation is needed to prevent ISIL-generated income from looted objects,” the flyer reads.

The handout is yet another example of government efforts to inform industry professionals of potential illegally trafficked objects. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has previously shared on its website two Red Lists: the first, published in September 2013, focuses on Syrian artifacts; the second, produced this year, lists ones from Iraq. Originally created by the International Council of Museums, the lists are available in multiple languages and are meant to help people identify cultural objects at risk of theft and illicit trading. The FBI recommends that buyers consult them thoroughly before making purchases, carefully verifying any object’s provenance and related documents as well.

“We don’t want to say don’t buy anything at all,” Magness-Gardiner added. “There’s a lot of legitimate material circulating in the marketplace. What we’re trying to say is, don’t allow these pieces that could potentially support terrorism to be part of the trade.”

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