Showing posts with label DGAM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label DGAM. Show all posts

September 27, 2017

Ar-Raqqah Museum - September 2017 Status Update

Image Credit: DGAM, Syria - November 25, 2014
The last time ARCA wrote on the status of the Ar-Raqqah Museum was in November 25,  2014, ten months after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known also as ISIL, Daesh, IS, ISIS) overtook the city of Raqqa.  In that post we reported on a bomb that had been dropped near Arafat Square which caused structural damage to the museum's facades, as well as damage to its doors, shutters and windows. Used by militants as a military headquarters, the museum already carried heavy scars and its collection had already been subject to plundering.

Image Credit: Twitter User @AfarinMamosta
- September 15, 2017
This month, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been making game-altering advances against Daesh in Raqqa's Old City.  At the height of this campaign, an estimated  two dozen air strikes rain down on the city each day.  Others observers (Airwars) have estimated that US-led forces dropped 5,775 bombs, shells and missiles onto the city in the month of August alone.  

Whatever the exact number, the push of Operation Euphrates Wrath seems to be well underway, with SDF forces reporting that 80 percent of the embattled city has now been liberated. Unfortunately much of what remains of the once vibrant community has been left smouldering and in ruin.

ISIL gained full control of Raqqa in January 2014, and made the city the capital of its self-declared "caliphate".  While under Da'esh's control, Raqqa will forever be remembered for being the backdrop of some of the militants' most gruesome executions.  Risking their lives to document these human rights atrocities, citizen journalists focused their efforts on documenting the human tragedy of the city's inhabitants.  Reporting on the status of the city's cultural heritage took an objectively necessary backseat.

But as this September campaign to recapture the city progresses, and hardline militants begin to lose their stranglehold on Raqqa, video and photos have emerged that give us more information on the current condition of Ar-Raqqah Museum.


Video credit: Twitter User @HassounMazen

The Museum of Raqqa was founded in 1981 and was primarily dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of cultural heritage gathered from excavation research from the Ar-Raqqah province.  Its collection included objects from Tell Bi’a, Tell Munbaqa, Tell Sabi Abyad, and Tell Chuera, and artefacts that date from Roman and Byzantine eras as well as objects from the Islamic period (the epoch of Haroun al-Rachid) and from the period of more recent Bedouin domination.

When fully operational, the museum once contained roughly 6,000 artefacts. Many of those now, seem to have been looted, defaced or destroyed.

In Spring 2012 Syria's Directorate-General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM) reported that an armed group called Ahar al Sham had moved 527 artefacts from the museum under the pretext of protecting them.  In June 2013 robbers seized an additional six containers of museum objects that had previously been stored in the Raqqa Museum’s warehouse.  Through cooperation and negotiations with members of the local community three of these boxes were later identified in Tabaqa under the control of a group called “Cham Free People”.  While the found boxes contained 104 artifacts, no further information is available as to what happened to the remaining objects removed in 2012 and 2013.

A report of the archaeological heritage in Syria during the crisis from 2011 through early 2013 written by Professor Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's now former Director General of the country's Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) can be read here.

After Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated the area surrounding the Raqqqa museum a delegation from ATPA in Al Jazira Canton represented by Berivan Younes, Ristem Abdo, and Sipan Abdul Ghafoor visited the area on September 20, 2017. Their objective was to do initial damage assessments on some of what remains of the city's cultural heritage.

While SDF fighters have taken the museum under their protection and destroyed many mines around it, ATPA was not allowed to enter the museum itself, as SDF’s special units still need to deal with the mines rigged inside the museum.

ATPA’s initial report can be found here. 

A recently funded project at the University of Leiden called Focus Raqqa is aiming to make a digital inventory of the objects once housed in the Raqqa museum as many of the artefacts plundered were once excavated by Dutch archaeologists.  This digital record may become useful in the future in identifying looted objects should they resurface later on the commercial art market.

Image Credit: Twitter User @AfarinMamosta
 - September 15, 2017
Image Credit: ANF News - September 15, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: Twitter User @HassounMazen
- September 15, 2017
Image Credit: Twitter User @AfarinMamosta - September 15, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
Image Credit: ATPA in Al Jazira Canton - September 20, 2017
By:  Lynda Albertson

November 30, 2016

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 - ,,,,, No comments

Auction Alert I: Ancient Palmyran Limestone Head Ca. 3rd-5th century A.D.?



Two different online auction websites, Live Auctioneers and Invaluable each have "sold" a listing for the same Palmyrene limestone funerary bust.  The object on offer was sold November 29th through Palmyra Heritage Gallery in New York City with a closing bid of USD $3,900.

As some of ARCA's readers may recall from an earlier blog post, Palmyra Heritage Gallery is operated by Mousa Khouli who also uses the Americanized name of Morris. Khouli has dealt in antiquities and ancient coins in the New York area for quite some time and has operated his business as both Windsor Antiquities and Palmyra Heritage. His ancient wares have been found on vCoin previously and are currently offered on the online auction powerhouse website eBay using a seller profile called:
palmyraheritagemorriskhouligallery. 

As detailed in that earlier ARCA blog post, involving another potentially suspect object, Khouli moved to New York City with his family from Syria in 1992. Once in America he opened a gallery specializing in objects from the ancient world in 1995. His father had a gallery in Damascus, Syria for 35 years and his grandfather too worked in the art and antiquities trade, meaning that he should likely be well-versed in the legalities of trading in objects from the ancient world.


But knowing the law and abiding by the law, are two different things. 

In 2008 and 2009 Khouli arranged for the purchase and smuggling of a series of Egyptian antiquities, exported from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and then smuggled into the United States under false declarations to the US Customs authorities concerning the country of origin and the value of the antiquities. The illicit objects included a set of Egyptian funerary boats, a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, a three-part nesting coffin set, which, according to its hieroglyphics, may have belonged to “Shesepamuntayesher” from the Saite period or 26th Dynasty, and several Egyptian limestone figurines. The contents on the shipping labels and customs paperwork supplied for the imported items were intentionally mislabeled as “antiques,” “wood panels,” and a “wooden painted box.” 

Cultural Property Attorney Rick St. Hilaire, who followed the court case against Khouli and other defendants throughout the federal proceedings, reported in April 2012 that the antiquities dealer/numismatist pled guilty to smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the United States and to making a false statement to law enforcement authorities. In November of the same year United States Senior District Judge Edward R. Korman departed from the federal sentencing guidelines and sentenced Khouli to a relatively light sentence for his misdeeds: six months home confinement, one-year probation, 200 hours of community service, and a criminal monetary assessment of $200. 

Yet looking at the documentation for Khouli's recent auction of the Palmyrene limestone funerary sculpture also raises some questions. At the time of the 2008-09 conviction Khouli provided the purchasing collector with false provenance for the trafficked Egyptian antiquities; documents which stated that the objects were part of a private collection that his father had assembled in Israel in the 1960s.

Under the listing for the Palmyrene limestone funerary bust both websites list: "Private NYC Collection acquired From Israel 10-03-2011 with original Export License from Israel" for the object's provenance.  Along with the written detail, each auction included a reassuring photo for the would-be bidder, a rumpled document written in Hebrew and English that states that the object had been exported from Israel through Sami Taha, an antiquarian and numismatist whose website states he is "serving Jerusalem and the world's market for antiquities from the Holy Land by authority of the Israel Antiquities Authority."

Sami Taha's business is operated with the following details:
Twitter Profile: @BiblicalArtifas
eBay Seller Profile: biblicalartifacts.jerusalem

Until August 2016 he listed himself as an authorised Antiquities Dealer, License No.144 *
Ancient Art of the Holy Land
45 Jaffa Gate, opposite David Citadel entrance
PO Box. 14646
Jerusalem 9114601, Israel
The physical location for his shop has since closed though he is still selling actively on the web. 

* Note:  No copy of this dealer's Israeli Antiquities Authority license has been provided on Taha's website.

If the provenance document provided during the sale for this limestone funerary bust is to be believed, the object was shipped from Israel to a collector in Europe. Interestingly the name listed as the importer,  also shows up on other antiquities traceable to Khouli as the collector listed in the provenance of at least three objects being sold or which have sold through various online auction websites, making these objects equally questionable. 

But what does an Israeli export authorization form actually look like?

Below is an example of an authentic Israeli-issued IAA export approval document issued in 2011 (below left). The document next to it is the one provided by Khouli for the Palmyra bust (below right).


Notice that the documentation provided for the purported Syrian object does not identify the export authority in the header, nor is it rubber-stamped or signed.

But why didn't the limestone funerary bust, allegedly from Palmyra, have any documentation from its country of origin, Syria?

Probably because there isn't any.   The general export of antiquities is altogether banned in Syria in all but the rarest of circumstances and the country's cultural heritage is protected by numerous national laws.  A review of the ICOM red list for Syria shows that authentic funerary busts from Palmyra would likely be classified as a movable antiquity, considered immovable in cases where they are parts or decorations of immovable antiquities (such as gravesites) and covered under the following national rulings:

Decree-Law No. 84 of the Civil Code regarding archaeological objects
covered by specific laws - 18 May 1949

Legislative Decree No. 148 of the Penal Code regarding the destructions
of historical monuments - 22 May 1949

Legislative Decree No. 222 on the Antiquities regime in Syria - 26 October 1963, as amended by the Antiquities Law - 5 April 1999
NOTE: Legislative Decree No. 222 encompasses previous national legislation
regarding the protection of cultural heritage:
Legislative Decree No. 295 - 2 December 1969
Legislative Decree No. 296 - 2 December 1969
Legislative Decree No. 333 - 23 December 1969

Law No. 38 on Customs - 6 July 2006

Decree-Law No. 107 regarding local administration - 23 August 2011

Article 69 of the Syrian Antiquities Law specifically provides that an export license may only be granted with regard to antiquities that are to be exchanged with museums and other scientific institutions, and with regard to antiquities given to an organization or mission after excavations are finished.  Neither of these circumstances appear to be the case with the auctioned funerary bust, making the fact that the object has no other substantiating paperwork, prior to 1963, all the more suspicious.

So if the object is authentic, then who moved the bust from Syria to New York, and how and is it authentic? 

ArchaeologyIN (The Archaeology Information Network) has notified Walid Al-Asad, the former director of antiquities and museums in Palmyra on 28 November about the object's upcoming sale and Al-Asad stated that at first glance the auction photo appears to meet the artistic specifications of a Palmyrene limestone funerary bust.  On this basis, ArchaeologyIN formally notified Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director General, Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM) in Syria of the potentially suspicious item.

Questioning its entry into the United States on the basis of the material supplied by the seller, ARCA in turn contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in New York about its concerns regarding the object's limited import/export paperwork and the bust's purported export provenance from Israel via possibly Oslo.

But small organizations and understaffed source countries, acting alone or in cooperation, cannot tackle all of the triangulations between looters, smugglers, dealers and potential buyers. Without the active support of the art collecting community itself, the problem of illicit trafficking will always be a catch me if you can game of cat and mouse.

The appearance of paperwork, should never replace a buyer's own due diligence.

If crafty antiquities dealers can write anything they want about an object's collecting history when promoting their wares for an auction listing then it's ultimately up to the individual collector/buyer to do their own homework before ethically committing to the purchase ancient art.  This is all the more true of antiquities whose purported origins are from conflict-ridden war zones such as Palmyra.

The antiquities dealer says he has an export license?  Do you, as the potential buyer, know what type of actual import and export documentation an ancient object would need to have to have legally passed out of the object's source country and into the hands of the seller in the dealer's destination country?  Do you as a collector know enough about the heritage protection laws in the country where the object originates to make sure what you are purchasing isn't contributing to a country's instability?

As a morally principled art buyer, who are you are entrusting your purchase to? Do you know the background and ethics of the antiquities dealer you are purchasing an object from?  Has that person been involved in dishonest trading in the past?   Have they falsified documentation previously in furtherance of laundering illicit objects through the licit market either for greed or to satisfy collector's demands?

As a buyer, investing in ancient art, the antiquities collector has the right, but also the responsibility, to ask to see all export documentation and to verify that the object's provenance claims are true, before any money changes hands.

Ethical antiquities dealer with a clean object should have no problem with the close scrutiny.  If they do, or if the deal seems too good to be true, then it most likely is.

For more information on this particular dealer's past history ARCA recommends the following Dr. David Gill's Looting Matters posts as well as the comprehensive federal case reporting of Rick St. Hilaire which can be found here. 

By: Lynda Albertson

July 13, 2016

Wednesday, July 13, 2016 - ,, No comments

DGAM Syria reports damage to the National Museum of Aleppo

The Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM)in Syria has issued a report with images showing recent damage to the structural integrity of the National Museum of Aleppo.  One of the images shows what appears to be a an improvised artillery device made from a propane cylinder. 


Known as a "hell cannon" these improvised explosives carry a range of approximately 1 mile/ 1.6 km depending on the payload it is firing and have been used by opposition forces during the Syrian conflict.  

The Mari display section at the National Museum of
Aleppo after the October 2012 car bombs exploded
in Aleppo city centre
In October 2012 four car bombs were reported as having exploded near the museum, injuring some workers and curators. Those earlier explosions caused notable damage to the museum's infrastructure. During the explosion, windows were destroyed, as was the artificial roof, a lighting system and some of the showcases.   At the time of the earlier incident, the museums collection was still housed within the museum. 






April 13, 2016

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 - ,,, No comments

The Road to Recovery - DGAM in Syria Issues Initial Statement Regarding its Plans for Palmyra

This evening the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria issued a statement about their intent and vision for Palmyra and sent a copy to ARCA for dissemination.  This document can be read in its entirety here.

Before undertaking any substantial rehabilitation project on the ancient city it is reassuring to know that the country’s heritage management authorities are carrying out a comprehensive damage assessment in order to document the nature and scale of all the damage before deciding on a measured and scientifically valid strategy for conservation and preservation.

As with any good heritage management plan, if there is any sense of urgency it will be to carry out any needed emergency repairs to stabilise the historic site and to minimise or prevent further damage while a long term comprehensive recovery plan is being considered and developed.

When reflecting on calls to restore Palmyra to its former glory, the internet has been abuzz with people arguing that it is too early to begin to think about heritage.  While it is true that this conflict is sadly far from concluding, a peoples need to rebuild, to find normalcy where it is anything but, is not something that is date-stamped to begin solely once peace has been achieved.

Heritage damage in wartime is often symbolic of what has been lost.  Likewise the yearning to restore emblematic monuments to their former glory can be symbolic of a citizenry's own desire to pick up the pieces of their own lives and put them back together.

In 1940 the German Luftwaffe attacked Coventry in the English Midlands and the city decided to rebuild its mediaeval cathedral the morning after its destruction.  The Second World War also saw 85% of Warsaw's historic centre destroyed by Nazi troops and in 1946 the city initiated a 5 year campaign, (not without its detractors) carried out by its citizens, that resulted in a meticulous restoration of the city's Old Town, complete with recreated churches, palaces and marketplace.

For the Polish citizens of Warsaw who had lived through the horrors of war, the memory of how things were mattered more than authenticity.

Sometimes, the need to restore culture has does not even wait for reconstruction.   In 1993 Zubin Mehta conducted the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mozart's Requiem inside the crumbling ruins of Sarajevo's National Library, its music reminding us that sometimes food and shelter from the bombardment and strive are not the only things that heal woulds and knit a community back together.

Whatever course of action is ultimately approved by the DGAM for Palmyra, it is my hope that the dedication of the department's team of professionals is not brushed to the wayside during the debate on what should be done and when and by whom.  Syria's heritage staff deserve encouragement and support, not magnifying glass criticism before conservation projects have even get under way.  The staff working for the DGAM are the people who know Syria's heritage needs better than anyone and certainly a lot better than those criticising their work safely miles away from the the day to day suffering during a protracted and bloody war.

If I could wish for anything, I would hope that local people, where appropriate, can be integrated into the rebuilding initiative as a means of healing for the fragmented community of Tadmur.  Being part of restoring heritage together could help the citizens of the modern city begin their own recovery and would also mitigate the "history is more important than humanity" rhetoric that often comes with these types of heritage undertakings.

Director General of the DGAM has affirmed that the
hypogeum of the Three Brothers, which dates back to 160 AD,in Palmyra stayed intact.

Regardless of what projects are ultimately selected and acted upon, it is important that the conservation or reconstruction work be “de-politicised.  Technical experts and conservators need to be able to get on with their work without pressure from political or other interest groups and so that they can focus on being sure that the heritage aid is integrated into a broader humanitarian recovery programme. In this way, and if handled delicately, reconstruction can be the first emotional bricks cementing a post-conflict reconciliation.

The people of Syria’s ability to recover from this conflict will owe much to their own cultural resilience, to people letting people get on with life on their own terms, and to not imposing our ideas onto their social and economic realities.  By remembering that cultural heritage can be a positive tool for reconciliation and social reconstruction, whatever gets decided will assuredly take into consideration the sensitivities of the Syrian people and their need to reestablish the familiar as symbolic symbols of things returning to normal.

The ancient city of Palmyra as a monument is not merely a reflection of the ancient past.  In a single desert location, Palmyra simultaneously tell us something about the country, the people who have for centuries populated the area, the city in all its former glory, and its many battles.  Battles fought in wars long ago and battles fought which are still rawly fresh and indelibly carved into our collective psyche.

Palmyra is as much a reflection of society's ability to survive as it is a message of hope for Syria's future.

Op Ed - Lynda Albertson

March 24, 2016

Thursday, March 24, 2016 - ,, No comments

Syrian Troops Poised to Recapture Palmyra from Islamic State

 Partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometers (133 miles)
northeast of Damascus, Syria, March 14, 2014. (AFP/Joseph EID)
Throughout the afternoon Wednesday Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes advanced in central Syria seizing high ground within a few kilometres to the west and the south of Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle.  Positioning themselves to recapture Tadmor and the ancient archaeological site, advance detachments of the Syrian government army have allowed news correspondents from Alikhbaria Syria TV to accompany them and film the military's preparations to retake the city over the last two days.

The Triumphal Arch of Palmyra, dynamited by ISL militants
in October 2015. One of a set of stunning albumen prints
produced by FĂ©lix Bonfils between 1867 and 1876.
The governor of Homs province, Talal Barazi, has speculated in the press that the military would recapture Palmyra within two days.  In the afternoon, the government forces managed to fully capture the Semiramis Hotel as well as Mount Muthar and the Mozeh Palace, a once luxurious Qatari-owned villa which ISIL used during the occupation as a staging facility.   
Nestled deep in the Syrian desert, the recapture of Palmyra is seen as a strategic as well as symbolic victory for the Syrian government, as control of the terrain surrounding Palmyra's magnificent 2000 year old ruins would provide government forces with a tactical advantage in the ongoing conflict.  By controlling the areas southwest of Tadmor the SAA would also control large swaths of the surrounding desert extending to the Iraqi border affecting supply lines. 

The government's strategy to retake the city from two sides, vs. a siege approach (encircling the city in order to block reinforcements and the subsequent escape of Da'esh militants) may have been decided upon to avoid urban warfare and to afford some limited protection, if possible, to what remains of the magnificent ruins of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.  By giving the Islamic State forces an exit route the Syrian government forces may be attempting to reduce the possibility of desperation-provoked destruction of the archaeological site while forcing the insurgents into unprotected open territory and theoretically away from civilians, though ISIS had been broadcasting in Tadmur for civilians to leave the city, meaning fleeing fighters could be interspersed with fleeing civilians.

The Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, welcomed the pending liberation of the Palmyra archeological site.  In a statement issued by her office she said the city “carries the memory of the Syrian people, and the values of cultural diversity, tolerance and openness that have made this region a cradle of civilization,"

The Director-General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria Maamoun Abdulkarim expressed his joy Thursday at "the imminent liberation" of the ancient city of Palmyra from the hands of extremists stressing that he will rebuild the temples jihadists had destroyed.

In discussing the last critical days Abdulkarim told reporters  the AFP: "I get a sense of fear and joy at the same time. Of course I am happy with the impending liberation, the dream becomes more and more a reality, and I doubt nightmare to an end, which means that we avoid a complete destruction will be attached to the city's archeological was. "  He further added that "I think that this period of ten months were the worst in our lives.”

On Thursday afternoon, March 24 Syria's Director-General of Antiquities and Museums released the following announcement:

"During the recent few days, the Syrian armed forces has started the battle to restore the city, confirmed information state that the city is being surrounded by both the western and west-southern sides, in preparation to gain control back on the city. 


Upon restoring the city, experts for DGAM will directly plan a field visit for damage assessment, with the collaboration of local and international partners, i.e. UNESCO, ICOMOS, and ICCROM, as the city is enlisted on the World Heritage List.  As previously adopted by DGAM, plans of restoration and rehabilitation should also be prepared consequently in order to open the site back to its residents and visitors as soon as possible. 


We, at DGAM, will do our best to carry a cultural, intellectual, and human message that Palmyreans have always presented to the world, a message of tolerance and multicultural richness, the things that the militants of ISIS hates."


Given the emotional response to the murder of Khaled al-Asaad, a university professor and the former general manager for antiquities and museums at Palmyra, who gave his life in defence of Syria's culture,  it is easy to understand Dr. Abdulkarim's commitment and those of his staff, to securing and conserving the ancient historical site. 








November 26, 2014

Ar-Raqqah Museum in Syria continues to Suffer

Yesterday a report came in from the Syrian Arabic Republic - Ministry of Culture's Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) that a bomb dropped in Raqqa (ar-Raqqa, ar-Raqqah, Raqqa, Rakka), Syria near Arafat Square has done structural damage to the main facades of the Ar-Raqqah Museum as well as damage to the doors, shutters and windows.  To outline the damages we have included photos of the museum prior to and after this bomb strike.

This only adds insult to the already identified injury.  Previously DGAM reported that in Spring 2012 an armed group called Ahar al Sham had moved 527 artefacts under the pretext of protecting them. 

Then in June 2013 robbers seized an additional six containers that had been previously stored in the Raqqa Museum’s warehouse.  Through cooperation and negotiations with members of the local community three of these boxes were later identified in Tabaqa under the control of a group called “Cham free people”.  While the found boxes contained 104 artifacts ARCA hasn't been able to ascertain which pieces from the inventory were recovered.

A report of the archaeological heritage in Syria during the crisis from 2011 through early 2013 written by Professor Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim, General Director of Syria's Ministry of Culture can be read here. The 2013 report is available here.

The Museum of Raqqa was founded in 1981 and has been primarily dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of cultural heritage gathered from excavation research from the Ar-Raqqah province.  Its collection includes objects from Tell Bi’a, Tell Munbaqa, Tell Sabi Abyad, and Tell Chuera, and includes artefacts that date from Roman and Byzantine eras as well as objects from the Islamic period (the epoch of Haroun al-Rachid) and from the period of more recent Bedouin domination.

Situated in north-central Syria near to where the Balikh River joins the Euphrates the city of Raqqa once dominated the northwest corner of the heartland of the Islamic Empire precisely because it was a major stopover point for those traveling through the Syrian desert to other important cities in the region making it integral for commerce.  Because of this strategic location Raqqa has always been hotly contested throughout its lifespan, perhaps now more than ever.   L. Albertson, ARCA CEO
 

November 23, 2014

Essay: Do you think art collectors might be tempted to buy Syrian antiquities (looted or otherwise?). We say resoundingly, yes.

By Lynda Albertson

On November 22, 2014 the Syrian Arabic Republic - Ministry of Culture's Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) published two striking photos of three confiscated artifacts removed from the Taibul Tomb in the Southeast Necropolis at Palmrya.  Taibul (TYBL in his native Palmyrene) was a rich Palmyran merchant who commissioned a tomb for himself and his family in 113 CE in a necropolis five kilometres southeast of Palmyra.

The tombs in this ancient graveyard are subterranean.  To the untrained eye, the zone where Taibul's tomb and others are located originally looked like just another tract of stony Syrian desert. But with the combined work of Syrian and Japanese archaeologists who documented the site between 2001 and 2005 we have learned much about Palmyrene funerary practices, couches, sepulchres and loculi.   

Unfortunately, the finely-sculpted figures of
men and women where of interest not only to archaeologists and historians documenting the site but more recently also to tomb raiders. But were these thieves savvy enough to understand what will sell on the antiquities art market or were they simply opportunists, taking advantage of what they could easily access?  

Are funerary busts of interest to collectors?

And are they willing to pay large sums for them?

A quick search on the internet would lead one to believe so.  In a few clicks I found one relief listed on eBay through Aphrodite Ancient Art LLC with little identifying where the object originated from.  The auction page states only that it was part of an “Early American private collection, 1960’s”.  eBay lists this one for a steal.  Its auction price is an eye-popping $13,500. 
Aphrodite eBay Auction Item

In 2011 an uglier Syrian limestone relief also went on auction.  Listed as Lot 69 in Sotheby’s June 8, 2011 auction, the object's provenance was listed as Sarkis and Haddad, Beirut, early 1970s.  Despite its humbler appearance, it still managed to find a buyer and fetched a modest sum of $8,125.

Going back to the Aphrodite website, I found a second, Syrian funerary relief of two brothers.  This one listed the object as coming from Palmyra with a provenance of having been purchased from Sotheby's New York in June 2011.  Buy it while it still lasts and collectors can get two funerary figures for a whopping $22,500.

Given the fragility of the Palmyra tombs and the many heritage sites damaged, at risk, or already looted as a result of the Syrian conflict, I wonder if it would be wiser if the experts shifted their focus away from statistical analysis to something more concrete.  Instead of trying to quantifying how much money ISIS/ISIL may, or may not, be making off of blood antiquities perhaps we should be stressing that more attention and funding is needed to trace who the individual traffickers are, both upstream and down.  If we do, Syria's cultural heritage might have a less grim outcome.   As for journalists in search of catchy headlines; vandalized tombs make just as dramatic a statement as vague value estimates and they can be substantiated with actual witnesses and imagery confirmation.

Aphrodite Website Auction Item
Given the gargantuan task of protecting antiquities in the midst of a civil war,  I think its pretty remarkable that DGAM had photo images matched so quickly to identify these pieces and to inform the public of their findings.  And while I am not prepared to go out on a brittle limb and assume any of these reliefs on sale or recently sold have dirty provenance, I do think their presence in the fine arts marketplace makes a pretty strong case that Syrian heritage objects are of interest to collectors.  The fact that they garner hefty sums further underscores that we have only seen the tip of the Syrian antiquities iceberg. 

Petty subsistence looters may fence objects for paltry amounts, middlemen fighters may take their cut, and end traffickers may make a bundle selling to auction houses and galleries, but all this useless faffing about of trying to put an unquantifiable dollar sign on how much its making which opponent in this war is doing nothing to stop the flow whatsoever.

In the end percentages are less relevant than simply understanding that collection-worthy pieces like these seen at auction or those stripped from Palmrya will surely find their way into the world's antiquities art market.  Maybe not immediately, but with the lack of market transparency and self policing, surely in the future.

Traffickers are patient.  So are collectors.