Wednesday, January 6, 2016

2015's Questionable Claims on ISIS and Syrian Antiquities: To Hopes for More Accuracy and Less Hype in 2016

Knowledgeable cultural property observers have been frustrated that questionable claims about Syria, ISIS and antiquities trade continue to be actively promoted as part of the archaeological lobby's campaign in support of H.R. 1493/S. 1887,  problematic legislation that purports to address protecting cultural property in times of war and civil strife.

In honor of the New Year, CPO counts down the top five (5) dubious claims made in 2015 in support of this legislation that would create a new State Department coordination and enforcement bureaucracy and place what amounts to permanent import restrictions on Syrian cultural goods.

Hopefully, questions about the accuracy of these claims will also lead to questions about the wisdom of  the Senate passing H.R. 1493/S. 1887 in its current form.  While this legislation was no doubt introduced with the best of intentions, it suffers because its sponsors failed to consult with all stakeholders before its introduction and have relied on incomplete, misleading or false information to justify its approach to the issue of cultural heritage preservation.

5. The Claim:  Trade data helps prove there has been an upsurge in stolen Syrian antiquities on the market.

The Source:  "Cultural Heritage Lawyer" Rick St. Hilaire and "Red Arch" Cultural Heritage Law Policy Research" have heavily promoted this idea on St. Hilaire's blog.  See most recently, Rick St. Hilaire, "Antiques from Syria: U.S. Cultural Property Import Stats Raise Suspicion," Cultural Heritage Lawyer Blog (December 29, 2015), available at
 (last visited January 6, 2016).

The Reality:  Mr. St. Hilaire and his blog are associated with the archaeological lobby and its anti-trade and anti-collecting views.  As such, his interpretation of trade data should be viewed as that of an advocate for a position and not that of an unbiased researcher. With regard to his work, at the outset, there appears to be a serious misconception about the nature of the figures themselves.  St. Hilaire at least implies the figures reflect the values for artifacts exported from Syria in 2014 rather than a “country of origin” or “country of manufacture” of Syria and exported from elsewhere to the United States.  In fact, due to massive confusion in the trade and a lack of guidance from U.S. and foreign Customs, it is likely that the figures include values for both artifacts manufactured in Syria (perhaps thousands of years ago) and exported to the U.S. from elsewhere along with artifacts directly exported from Syria itself.  Thus, artifacts that were manufactured in Syria but have been out of Syria for decades are likely included (and indeed may represent the bulk of the material that has been imported.)  In any event, the values cited are modest (particularly compared to wild claims for the values of looted Syrian antiquities (see Claim No. 2 below)), and it would be interesting to compare them with figures for antiquities imports with a country of origin of Syria over time. 

4.  The Claim:  There must be storehouses full of valuable stolen Syrian antiquities.

The Source:  In 2002 and 2005, Swiss police raided warehouses that were used to house antiquities illicitly excavated in Italy and Greece over the past decades.   See David Gill, "Warehouses, Antiquities and Basel," Looting Matters Blog (November 7, 2008), available at  (last visited January 6, 2016).   Of course, Switzerland is an exceptionally stable country that at the time was also known for its strong privacy laws.  What better a place to store valuable antiquities?

The Reality:  Though warehouses full of illicitly excavated antiquities were found in Switzerland, is it also likely that similar storehouses also exist in unstable Middle Eastern countries?  One would not necessarily think so, but the archaeological lobby has nonetheless promoted the idea. Why?  After the Second Gulf War, there were also claims that material looted from archaeological sites in Iraq would be reaching the market in quantity.  When this never materialized, the archaeological lobby then explained away the issue by claiming that the material was being stockpiled.  See Guy Gugliata, "Looted Iraqi Relics Slow to Surface," The Washington Post (November 8, 2005) available at (last visited January 6, 2016).  Now, given the dearth of fresh Syrian material on the market, the same claim is again being used to explain away suspicions that efforts to loot archaeological sites (as evidenced by what appear to be holes in the ground in satellite photography) may not be anywhere near as successful as has been maintained.  (Apparently, no one has seriously (or at least publicly) considered the possibility that many of these holes were "dry" or at least some of these "looter's holes" were actually "fox holes" dug for military purposes.)

But what of the recent seizure from an ISIS financier? On May 15, 2015, U.S. Special Operations personnel removed a cache of hundreds of artifacts from the home of ISIS Financier Abu Sayyaf.  According to the State Department, "The cache represents significant primary evidence of looting at archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, theft from regional museums, and the stockpiling of these spoils for likely sale on the international market." See  "ISIL Leaders Loot," U.S. State Department Cultural Heritage Center Website (undated), available at (last visited January 5, 2016).  So far, this is the only storehouse full of "valuable" ISIS loot that has come to light.  However, an experienced dealer who looked at images of the coins found in the group valued them at perhaps $40,000 retail and $8,000 wholesale.  Indeed, the cache looked more like the modest stock of a small dealer in Middle Eastern antiquities than a storehouse for a fabulous cache of valuable Syrian antiquities.

3.  The Claim:  Only ISIS is benefiting from sales of illicit antiquities.  

The Sources:  Back in 2014, Secretary of State Kerry highlighted the looting and destruction of cultural  sites in Syria  at an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  See Secretary of State John Kerry, Remarks at Threats to Cultural Heritage in Iraq and Syria Event (September 22, 2014), available at (last visited January 5, 2016).  Kerry evidently illustrated his talk with satellite imagery showing severe damage to Apamea, an important classical site in Syria.  CBS News and other news outlets then ascribed the damage at Apamea to ISIS even though Apamea appears to have been in government hands since the beginning of the Civil War.  It is unclear whether the archaeological lobby purposefully perpetuated this deception, but it is clear that CBS and other news sources have relied exclusively on State Department and archaeological lobby sources for their reporting.  See "The Perils of Limited Sourcing," Cultural Property Observer Blog (September 9, 2015), available at

The Reality:  A Dartmouth College study has confirmed that all participants in the Syrian civil war have taken part in looting Syrian archaeological sites. See "Dartmouth Led Study Shows ISIS Not Only Culprit in War Related Looting in Syria," Dartmouth Press Release (October 21, 2015), available at (last visited January 6, 2016).  As the press release states, "One of the most well-known incidents of looting occurred at Apamea, a massive Roman city in western Syria. The satellite images indicate that looting began in the start of 2012, after Syrian forces invaded the area, and continued during the Syrian occupation of the site through at least the fall of 2013. However, the most extreme phase of looting was conducted in the government-administered portion of the site with privately held fields remaining untouched until several months later when looting holes made by heavy machinery encroached into nearby areas on a systematic block by block basis with Syrian soldiers only 200 meters away."  Id.

2.  The Claim:  ISIS has made $10 s of millions or $100 s of millions from stolen antiquities.

The Sources:  The “tens of millions” figure ultimately derives from an erroneous claim that ISIS had stolen $36 million in antiquities from one on area in Syria alone.   See Heather Pringle, “ISIS Cashing in on Looted Antiquities to Fuel Iraq Insurgency,” National Geographic, June 27, 2014, available at (last visited January 6, 2016).  The report was later found to refer to money made from all types of looting in the al-Nabuk region of Syria, not only the looting of archaeological material.  (SeeNew Documents Prove ISIS Heavily Involved in Antiquities Trafficking,’ Gates of Nineveh Blog (September 30, 2015), available at (last visited January 6, 2016). 

The $100 million figure has been cited in a "Fact Sheet" to justify support for H.R. 1493/S.1887, but it appears even less grounded in fact.  See "Fact Sheet: Deny ISIS Funding & Save Syria's Antiquities,"  United States House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elliot L. Engel, Democrats (October 28, 2015) available at (last visited January 6, 2016).  Instead, it traces back to an unsupported claim made by Iraq’s UN Ambassador at a time the U.N. was considering a resolution condemning the terrorist group’s destruction and looting of cultural sites in Iraq.  See Rick Gladstone, “U.N. Resolves to Combat Plundering of Antiquities by ISIS,” The New York Times, May 28, 2015, available at  (last visited January  6, 2016).   

The Reality:  Provable amounts that ISIS has made from antiquities sales are far smaller, ranging from several hundreds of thousands of dollars to several millions.  See Derek Fincham, "Leaked Records Hint at How Much ISIS Makes on Antiquities," Illicit Cultural Property Blog,    (last visited January 4, 2016).  See also Kate Fitz Gibbon, "Debunking the ISIS Antiquities Funding Myth,' Committee for Cultural Policy Blog (December 6, 2015), available at (last vistited January 6, 2016).  These figures are a drop in the bucket compared to ISIS estimated take of at least $1 billion.

1. The Claim:  Import restrictions will "save" Syrian cultural property.

The Sources:  The archaeological lobby claims that embargoes on cultural goods will "save" Syrian cultural property, act as to disincentive looting, and damage terrorist financing.  See Erin Thompson, "Restrict Imports of Antiquities from Syria to Cut Down on Looting," The New York Times (January 21, 2015), available at (last visited January 6, 2016) and Heather Lee, "Heritage Crisis in Syria; a Call for a Moratorium on the Antiquities Trade, Saving Antiquities for Everyone Blog (September 3, 2014) available at (last visited January 6, 2016).

The Reality:  As applied by U.S. Customs, import restrictions are grossly over broad because they relate to where artifacts are made instead of where and when they were found.  Under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act ("CPIA"), the law governing import restrictions on cultural goods, the Government bears the initial burden to establish: (1) the item is of a type that appears on the designated list; (2) the item was first discovered within and subject to the export control of the country for which restrictions were granted; and (3) that it was illegally removed from the country for which import restrictions were granted after the applicable date.  (Under the CPIA, this is the date restrictions were imposed; here the date proposed under H.R. 1403/S.1887 is March 15, 2011.)  Thus, under H.R. 1493/S.1887, the Government should be required to establish that (1) the item is of a type that appears on the designated list of Syrian artifacts that will be created; (2) the item was “first discovered within” Syria and was subject to Syrian export control; and (3) the item was illegally removed from Syria after March 15, 2011.

Unfortunately, history shows that the State Department and U.S. Customs put expedience first.  Despite the CPIA’s plain meaning, the applicable regulation, 12 C.F.R. § 12.104 (a), ignores these requirements.  See Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 801 F. Supp. 2d 383, 407 n. 25 (D. Md. 2011) (“Congress only authorized the imposition of import restrictions on objects that were ‘first discovered within, and [are] subject to the export control by the State Party.’ Under the regulations, that requirement seems to apply only to the importation of a ‘fragment or part’ of an object of archaeological or ethnological interest.  This appears to have been an oversight in the drafting, or codification, of the original regulations in 1985, and has persisted in the C.F.R. ever since.”), aff’d,  698 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2012).  Accordingly, collectors are rightly concerned that following standard operating procedure,  the Government will argue that it need only establish the first element of its burden, i.e. that the object is “of archaeological interest” with a “country of origin” or manufacture of “Syria.”  For coins (one of the most common ancient artifacts), the practical result will thus be to give CBP license to “scoop up” all historical coins minted in Syria over the centuries even though such coins circulated far from Syria in ancient times as items of commerce and in more modern times as collectibles.  This, of course, will do little or nothing to "save" Syrian cultural property, disincentivize looting, and damage terrorist financing, but will do much to harm the legitimate trade in ancient art and the cultural understanding it brings.  

And what will happen to any antiquities and coins that are swept up in the dragnet?  The CPIA assumes that they will be repatriated to Syria, something not changed in H.R. 1493/S. 1887.  This, of course, raises pertinent questions.  Can artifacts be saved if they are returned to a war zone?  And is it morally justifiable to give them to the Assad regime, which has done its own share of looting and which has also intentionally destroyed cultural sites with its barrel bombs and artillery?

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