Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Michael Danti Speaks

Michael Danti, who runs the State Department-ASOR Syrian Cultural Heritage initiative, spoke about his activities on an ABA Cultural Heritage Law Committee "telecoffee"  discussion.  Michael McCullough, the Committee Chair, acted as moderator. A link to the talk, which was recorded, will appear on the Committee's website.  See here.  The below is based on my hurried notes so CPO readers are encouraged to listen to the program themselves if they want more than CPO's impressions of the event. 

Danti dug in Syria from 1991-2010.  He has also worked in Iraqi Kurdistan.  He has been associated with Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania.  He oversees the initiative that not only monitors the ongoing situation in Syria, but has also been involved in disaster planning and training initiatives for Syrian cultural heritage officials.

The conflict response includes 40-50 people and there are 5-10 reporters about what is going on within Syria itself.  (The initiative also relies on Arab media sources.)

Danti indicates that press reports focus too much on ISIL's destruction of classical sites and too little on its destruction of houses of worship of other Islamic sects as well as the destruction of Yazidi shrines and places of worship.   (Danti did not mention destruction of Christian houses of worship.)

There also has been a tendency to imply that all looting has been done on behalf of ISIS when in fact it has been done on behalf of all belligerents as well as desperate individuals.  This includes the Assad regime and Kurdish forces.

Digital media has been used to try to sell looted materials to individuals abroad.  Other Syrians who immigrated abroad and who are now fairly prosperous are particular targets of such sale pitches.  Part of the pitch is to save Syrian cultural heritage from destruction.

ISIS has an "antiquities office" that is in charge of looting.  It sells licenses that allow individuals to loot in ISIS territory.  The Abu Sayef raid shows that looted material is being stockpiled.

The initiative has documented approximately 1,000 cases of individuals trying to sell looted material with cell phone images.  Most of the material that is being sold is either classical or early Islamic.  Lebanon and Turkey are transshipment points.  Material goes on from there to Cyprus, Bulgaria, Austria or Greece and then into other EU countries. Coins, sculpture and mosaics are among the material that is for sale.  Refugees also bring material with them.  Once out of Syria, material looted from ISIS territory is mixed up with material looted from elsewhere.

The material does not appear to be going to established auction houses but coins are appearing in on-line auctions. 

Material is being offered to dealers in Turkey and Lebanon and in on-line chat rooms.  Lebanese Customs is doing a good job stopping material while Turkish Customs could do more. 

ASOR's contract with the State Department has been extended for another year.  In the second year of the contract, they plan to focus more on documenting the illicit trade in objects.  

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