WASHINGTON -- The Islamic State group is making millions of dollars by selling ancient art, perhaps to scores of buyers in the West -- and there’s not much the U.S. can do about it.
Because the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Syria, Washington has a hard time tracking the movement of artifacts out of the historically rich country where the Islamic State controls significant territory. There's presently no restriction on antiquities from Syria coming into the U.S., so American collectors and dealers knowingly or unknowingly may be boosting the Islamic State's coffers every day.
That risk of helping an extremist organization is not as great when it comes to the trade of antiquities from Iraq, the other country where the Islamic State has looted art. In 2004, Congress passed legislation that included limitations on the import of Iraqi antiquities into the U.S. The law has notably decreased the amount of looted Iraqi artifacts sold into the States, according to Katharyn Hanson, a post-doctoral fellow and Mesopotamian archaeologist at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center.
Now specialists like Hanson are joining lawmakers to bolster proposed legislation similar to that 2004 law, this time specifically giving the U.S. more power over black market art sales originating in Syria.
"We should remember that this is not some interesting side issue. This effort in the legislation ... is critically important in the overall strategy against ISIS,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the legislation's sponsor, said at an event on the Hill last week, using a common acronym for the Islamic State group.
Since last year, when U.S.-led airstrikes began to target other sources of the terror group's revenues, notably oil refineries and tankers, it has focused even more heavily on the looting and sale of antiquities, Bloomberg Business reported this summer. Looted artifacts can be advertised on Facebook, Ebay and Whatsapp, Bloomberg found. The Archeological Administration, an IS government branch near the Syria-Turkey border, manages the sale of plunder, according to the report.
"In a surprisingly small number of steps, you can go from the looter in ISIS-controlled territory to the smuggler who gets it out of the country ... to a gallery owner who provides forged documentation ... and ultimately getting a buyer making its way to the four destination points of New York, London, Paris and Tokyo," U.S. assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos told CBS in September.
The State Department that month released further proof of a large network of looting and smuggling after U.S. Special Forces raided the compound of targeted IS leader Abu Sayyaf, finding documents and artifacts among his belongings showing that the antiquities trade was one of his priorities.
Mohamed Ali Alhakim, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, has said that IS earns up to $100 million a year from the selling and trafficking of antiquities. The State Department is more conservative in its estimates, saying in September the group has probably earned several millions of dollars from the trade.
Casey introduced his bill in the Senate in July to counter this problem. It would bar Syrian artifacts from entering the U.S. commercially, while allowing for antiquities to be protected temporarily by U.S. institutions until they can be safely returned to their rightful owners.
The bill already passed the House in June. It now needs to be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before it can reach the Senate floor. "I would hope that the leadership of the Foreign Relations Committee as well as the Senate leadership would pass this very quickly," Casey told HuffPost. "It's significant that we have bipartisan support."
The office of Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said in an e-mail that they supported the bill. They did not comment on how they expected the committee to vote.
Though its proponents tout it as common sense, the bill is proving controversial in some quarters -- notably among ancient coin collectors who see it as creating a hurdle to their pursuit. Coin collector lobbyist Peter Tompa, who often speaks on behalf of coin collecting groups to the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee, wrote a blog post when the House passed the bill, arguing that the law would adversely affect coin collectors and smaller trading franchises.
"The new bureaucracy created in the State Department will lack transparency," wrote Tompa. "Any 'coordination' efforts will again ignore the concerns of collectors and the small businesses of the numismatic and antiquities trade."
Historians and archeologists who support the bill say it's essential for the ultimate protection of the artifacts that coin collectors and others value. They also note that the Islamic State's treatment of ancient valuables has an effect that’s less tangible than simply boosting the group’s coffers: It is reshaping the culture of parts of the Middle East that were once among the most advanced areas in the world, by forcing residents there to lose present-day associations with their history.
“In Syria, cultural heritage is part of everyday life. It's not something that belongs to the past," Dr. Salam Al-Kuntar of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center said at last Wednesday's Hill event. "It is embedded in our identities as Syrians and Iraqis."
A Syrian-born former directorate general of antiquities and museums in Syria, Al-Kuntar came to the U.S. after fleeing the civil war in 2012. She recalled wandering Palmyra, a cultural crossroads that has long embodied defiance and diversity, and watching a beautiful sunrise there. Palmyra is the city where the Islamic State recently tied three prisoners to ancient pillars and then executed them by detonating the pillars.
Though historic sites captured by IS, such as Palmyra, are technically protected by UNESCO, that body has only a limited capacity to challenge the extremists’ actions. In February, the United Nations adopted a binding resolution banning countries from aiding the Islamic State in its oil, artifact or hostage trades and enterprises. In May, the U.N. unanimously adopted a nonbinding resolution aimed specifically at saving the cultural heritage in Iraq from Islamic State plundering, but similar action has yet to be taken with regard to Syrian sites.
The potential legislative change now gaining momentum would reduce black market trade in antiquities from the country by undercutting the market demand for stolen artifacts. If the artifacts are restricted from many countries, their smugglers will lose a significant number of the wealthy customers supporting their enterprise.
But with that fix still not guaranteed, other efforts to limit the Islamic State’s damage prioritize preserving the artifacts. Some museums and cultural heritage organizations in Syria and Iraq have chosen to buy from smugglers, regardless of where the money may go. They’ve been able to discover some valuable artifacts that way. In early October, Live Science reported that a museum in Kurdistan discovered a cuneiform tablet revealing lost lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh after buying the tablet off of a smuggler.
Some specialists concur. James Cuno, the president of the trust behind Los Angeles' Getty Museum, agrees trade in these artifacts should be fluid in order to protect them. “Calamity can happen anywhere, but it is unlikely to happen everywhere at the same time,” Mr. Cuno said in an interview with The New York Times. “I say ‘distribute the risk,’ not ‘concentrate it.’”
But proponents of the legislative fix are doubtful. Hanson, who coordinated the Hill event for the bill, warned against that approach, and suggested its prevalence is proof that Congress must move on the bill soon.
"Saving an artifact by purchasing it off the market simply fuels theft of more artifacts,” she argued.