Conflict Antiquities Symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Palmyran funerary relief in the Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C.

 Last Tuesday night, September 29th, I went to a seminar held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled: “Conflict Antiquities, forging a public/private response to save the endangered patrimony of Iraq and Syria”.  The title and program warned me that this was likely to be an exercise in blaming the antiquities market for the cultural destruction in the Levant, and it was. It was co-sponsored by the US Department of State, here is a link to the press release on it.

Thrust of the speakers, who ranged from assistant secretaries of State, representatives from Homeland Security, agents of the Justice Department and high end attorneys for major museums and auction houses, was that the market for looted antiquities was the GREATEST threat to Syria and Iraqi's cultural patrimony.  They went over the extensive looting taking place with aerial photographs of sites pillaged since the unrest in Syria and Iraq, and the rise of ISIS.

However, their case is unconvincing to those involved in the antiquities business in the US and Europe, myself included. Showing images purportedly showing a receipt book taken in a raid on an ISIS compound showing taxes collected on antiquities sales in Arabic, they attempted to make the case that ISIS is funding itself largely through the sale of looting objects form the territories under their control.  However, the images they showed, screen grabs from online market places in Arabic, were of low end antiquities of very minimal value, small coins, bronzes and Roman glass, and a few Palmyran reliefs that were of higher quality. There was not one dealer among the panelists, and the one dealer who spoke up in the Q&A period, Randall Hixenbaugh, made the point that even the more attractive Palmyran reliefs are of modest value and hard to sell.

My issues with this symposium are several fold.  The first issue is that neither I, or the dealers I know, are seeing "conflict" antiquities being sold on the market.  The second issue is that the antiquities market in the US has been educated about cultural patrimony issues for well over a decade, since the 1990's.  The trade has gotten so restricted with museums and major auction houses requiring so much documentation of provenance that a class of "orphan" antiquities has been created; that is pieces with a long history of ownership here, but who lack the documentation to prove it.  The symposium is going over old ground for us here, but attempting to address a new threat, which is ISIS.

And here is my real problem with the symposium, the utter disregard for the destruction of objects and sites. Oh, they spoke about it as a bad thing, but then equated looting as the same as being blown up. There was no recognition that at least a looted object sold onto the market is one that survives, unlike those blown up or destroyed.  The real difference with the situation in the Levant and that in other parts of the Classical world is that there, looting is market driven, but in the Levant, it is not. Rather it is religious zealotry, and while ISIS might be happy to profit from the sale of antiquities, it not profit that motivates.  ISIS would rather destroy things than sell them.  One story I read researching for this blog concerned an attempt to smuggle Palmyran reliefs (link to the blog, Conflict Antiquities) In this story a smuggler driving a vehicle was smoking when passing an ISIS checkpoint, and the guards got suspicious because smoking is a sin and stopped him and searched the vehicle. When the Palmyran funerary reliefs were found, they destroyed them. They weren't interested in selling them for the money.

The effort to make "conflict" antiquities valueless, may well guarantee their destruction, since that is the primary aim of ISIS anyway.  Antiquities are by their very nature fragile, only the perception of their value, whether monetary or culturally motivates people to preserve them. While we might decry the loss of context that looting inevitably entails, the objects at least have a chance of survival. If they have no value,  no one is going to preserve them in that part of the world.  There is no good solution to the problem of the loss of cultural patrimony short of destroying ISIS, and re-establishing the rule of law in Iraq and Syria.  That requires much more than lecturing law abiding citizens of the US, who the government can threaten. It requires action, military and diplomatic where the damage is being done. And the US and the UN have proven unable and unwilling to really address ISIS and the instability in that region. The humanitarian and cultural cost of this ineffectiveness is enormous and continuing. The symposium was a waste of time, it is window dressing, an attempt by the State Department to show they are doing something to address the real destruction taking place, by placing the onus on the antiquities market, rather than addressing the real threat.  However well intended, it was a remarkably one sided prescription for a problem that is, it was like decorating the hallway while the house burns.

I have a lot more to say on this subject, and will in subsequent posts.