Italy and US Celebrate 15th Anniversary of Bilateral Cultural MOU

The U.S. is a leading market for art and antiquities — both legitimate, and unfortunately, illicit. By cutting off, or at least restricting, the import of looted and stolen cultural objects into the U.S., states can deal an effective blow against the black market in antiquities. Beyond the ability to impose import restrictions, bilateral agreements provide for mutual cooperation, as well as technical and even financial assistance for states. And from the U.S. perspective, they not only act in America’s interest of cutting off criminal activity at its borders, but also support its long-term policy goals of strengthening relationships with other nations.

US Italy MOU anniversaryRepresentatives of the Antiquities Coalition joined members of the US and Italian cultural heritage protection communities on Wednesday March 23rd at the Embassy of Italy to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the Italy-U.S. Memorandum of Understanding for Heritage Protection and Cultural Cooperation.

In welcoming remarks, newly appointed Ambassador of Italy to the United States Armando Varricchio emphasized the growing international ethic of diplomacy in the service of culture. Highlighting the benefits of intergovernmental cooperation for heritage protection, particularly in the arena of law enforcement, Ambassador Varricchio attested an ‘amazing quality and quantity of recent successes,’ recently, particularly in light of the recent establishment of the United Nations Blue Helmets for Culture.

Thereafter Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, spoke on the critical role cultural heritage plays in the construction of identity and the importance of place. Outlining the MOU’s goals and the means with which the U.S. and Italy are achieving them, she spoke of the congenial relationships the MOU has solidified. Though “In reality, we are accomplishing more and more,” Assistant Secretary Ryan emphasized the need to find new ways to protect heritage.

Among a roster of prominent individuals from the public and academic sectors of the cultural heritage community, Raymond Villanueva (Deputy Assistant Director, International Operations, Homeland Security Investigations, Department of Homeland Security) spoke on the strength of the relationship between U.S. and Italian heritage protection authorities as well as the importance of intensely monitoring the provenance of antiquities in the U.S. and global art markets.

Illicit artifact for saleIn the most qualitatively illuminating remarks of the evening, Major Massimo Maresca (Carabineri Command for the Safeguarding of Cultural Patrimony) spoke on the need to emphasize looting prevention as much as the suppression of trade in illicit antiquities. Major Maresca further underscored a need to focus on the receivers and middlemen of the looted antiquities market, in addition to looters and buyers. The total number of known illegal digs in Italy has been effectively reduced, in large part by the efforts of the Carabineri TPC, from 810 in 1990 to 49 in 2014. New partnerships, such as an emerging looting detection initiative utilizing European Space Agency satellite imagery, will help to guarantee the continuance of current success in discouraging the trade of illicit antiquities. Major Maresca indicated that 78% of recovered illicit antiquities confiscated in transit from Italy were bound for the United States, further accentuating the importance of the MOU’s renewal.


For more information about the MOU and its renewal, read the following excerpt and follow the link below to the Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs press release:


On January 19, 2016 the Governments of Italy and the United States extended for the third time the Memorandum of Understanding Concerning the Imposition of Import Restriction on Categories of Archaeological Material Representing the Pre-Classical, Classical and Imperial Roman Periods of Italy.

Italian and U.S. officials will present this important tool, which not only continues a legal means to fight art trafficking, but also offers a unique framework in which to strengthen cultural cooperation through several academic, scientific and educational initiatives.

The presentation was part of the “Protecting our Heritage” series of events organized by the Washington cluster of the European Union National Institutes of Culture (EUNIC) under the 2016 Italian presidency

For more information on the memorandum extension please visit the following links:




Law Enforcement Focuses on Asia Week in Inquiry of Antiquities Smuggling


Law Enforcement Focuses on Asia Week in Inquiry of Antiquities Smuggling



Homeland Security Investigations officers removing a piece of art on Wednesday from a gallery on East 67th Street in Manhattan. CreditTina Fineberg for The New York Times

In the seven years since its founding, Asia Week New York has grown from a small promotional effort by a few Manhattan art galleries to a splashy, 10-day event that combines museum exhibitions with art dealing. Last year, organizers say, it led to $360 million in sales.

But this year, Asia Week, which ends Saturday, has become the focal point of an aggressive and unusual law enforcement effort.

Federal officials working with the Manhattan district attorney’s office have seized on the festival to orchestrate a series of daily raids that have netted more than a half-dozen antiquities that the authorities say were looted overseas, then smuggled out for later sale by auction houses or dealers.

“For too long, those engaged in the criminal trade in antiquities have viewed the occasional seizure as simply the cost of doing business,” said Matthew Bogdanos, the assistant Manhattan district attorney who obtained search warrants for the raids.

But the seizures have upset dealers who say the sudden confiscations are a heavy-handed approach. Lark Mason, an Asian antiquities expert and dealer who is chairman of Asia Week, said gallery owners are ready to work with law enforcement when questions arise about objects.

“Why are they not approaching these galleries instead of treating them like criminals trying to do something underhanded,” he said. The items seized this week were all publicized by their vendors online and in catalogs, he said, not sneaked “in to be sold in some smoky back room.”

The seizures are part of Operation Hidden Idol, a nine-year investigation into antiquities smuggling that officials say has netted more than 2,600 items and reams of data about illicit trafficking. Typically, the authorities say, the smugglers create false paperwork to certify an object was acquired lawfully, often fooling purchasers and other dealers down the line.

The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance, said the raids ensured that items could be confiscated and that alerting dealers beforehand might send the objects underground. Many seized items have been returned to their countries of origin, Mr. Vance added.

Late Thursday, Homeland Security Investigations agents and the district attorney’s office added to their tally of confiscations by seizing several items from the Nancy Wiener Gallery on East 74th Street, which specializes in Asian objects. Officials said they removed a limestone sculpture of Hindu deities valued at $35,000 and a bronze Buddha worth $850,000, as well as business records.

Seizures cannot be good for the Asian antiquity market. But it is not clear what impact they are having this week on sales, gallery owners said. Many collectors are savvy and familiar with widespread reports about Subhash Kapoor, a former Manhattan dealer who is accused of having run the largest antiques smuggling operation ever uncovered in the United States.

Mr. Kapoor primarily dealt in objects from South Asia — India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular — and those are the sorts of items that have been seized in the past week by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations. There have been fewer reported instances of stolen antiquities from Japan, China or Korea turning up in the United States.

“Historically, Asian governments haven’t monitored their antiquities in the same way” as nations like Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, said Leila A. Amineddoleh, the former director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. “It makes them vulnerable.”

Mr. Kapoor, who is awaiting trial in India, has been the pivotal figure in Operation Hidden Idol, and the sheer volume of illicit artifacts he is said to have donated or sold — hundreds are in museums around the world — has raised questions about the level of scrutiny being practiced in both the art market and the museum world. Museums in the United States, Australia and Singapore, among others, have returned items obtained from Mr. Kapoor, many valued at well above $1 million. The Antiquities Coalition, which fights illicit antiquities trafficking, said major dealers and auction houses have the resources to conduct due diligence and should coordinate more with law enforcement and source countries.

“The burden of proof should fall on these global businesses,” said Deborah M. Lehr, the coalition’s founder, “not on the individuals and countries who are victims of the illicit trade, to validate antiquities before any sale.”

Some experts say many problems would be solved if law enforcement shared information about suspect items rather than publicized eye-grabbing confiscations. The Committee for Cultural Policy, an advocacy group for collectors, has called for a digital system under which museums and collectors could document items publicly and address foreign claims in a neutral forum.

“Instead of allowing auction houses, art dealers or collectors to research pieces beforehand, authorities wait for them to be offered for sale and then seize them with great fanfare,” said Kate Fitz Gibbon, a lawyer for the committee. “The first anyone knows that an artwork is stolen is through a Homeland Security press release.”

This week’s seizures are far from the largest set of raids conducted by federal agents tracking illicit antiquities. In 2008, hundreds of federal agents swooped down on 13 locations in California with warrants for objects at institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.

The bulk of the items were from Southeast Asia, and the man accused of directing the smuggling ring was convicted last year of making false declarations while importing antiquities.

Cases that involve prosecution are rare, though, and penalties are often light. In one New York federal case, an antiquities dealer in 2012 admitted smuggling ancient coffins and funerary items worth $2.5 million into the United States using false documents. Though prosecutors asked that he be sentenced to at least four years in prison, the judge gave him 200 hours of community service and a fine of $200.

Mr. Bogdanos and Mr. Vance said stern justice must be meted out to antiquities smugglers and to anyone in the trade who falsifies documents that accompany items.

“If you don’t send that message, you don’t deter others,” Mr. Vance said. “Antiquities raiding is not an acceptable business model.”

Correction: March 22, 2016 

An article on Friday about seizures of antiquities by law enforcement officials during Asia Week New York, using information from the website of Leila A. Amineddoleh’s law firm, misstated the connection of Ms. Amineddoleh, who commented on Asian governments’ monitoring of antiquities, to the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. She is a former director, not the current one.

PDF of article here

Impresión 3D de esculturas destruidas por el estado islámico


Impresión 3D de esculturas destruidas por el estado islámico

Jueves, 17 Marzo 2016
Categoría: Impresoras 3D
La artista iraní Morehshin Allahyari ha realizado para la organización Rhizome, dentro de su colección ‘Download’, una copia en 3D de una escultura del Rey Uthal destruida por los terroristas del estado islámico en Oriente Próximo.

Para la artista Morehshin Allahyari, las impresoras 3D suponen el uso de la tecnología para la resistencia y la documentación. Para Rhizome se trata de convertir es escritorio del ordenador en una sala de exposiciones.

Gracias a su introducción en el proyecto Rhizome, la documentación de este trabajo se puede descargar en un archivo .Zip, lo que nos permite conocerlo desde dentro: fotos, información, correos electrónicos, vídeos, modelos 3D. Una forma de acompañar a la autora por el proceso de creación:

Su serie ISIS es sólo la primera parte de un proyecto que quiere explorar “la relación poética de la impresión 3D, el plástico, el petróleo, el capitalismo tecnológico y la Yihad”, como apunta Allahyari en su página web:

Esta serie se centra en esculturas y artefactos romanos y asirios destruidos en 2015.


Para crear cada maqueta 3D para su impresión Allahyari no podía hacer fotografías a las obras en vivo, por lo que tuvo que conformarse con las imágenes que se podían encontrar en la web. Como su documentación nos descubre, también acudió a otras fuentes especializadas (correos electrónicos del archivo descargable) para pedir fotos, detalles e información de las traducciones en árabe.

De ahí, la artista creó los modelos 3D y los pasó por diferentes programas para corregir errores y prepararlos para la materialización tridimensional. El resultado ofrece unas figuras muy detalladas, eso sí, a escala.

La artista iraní no es la única que trabaja en devolver la vida al patrimonio histórico.

Hay otros proyectos como el Mosul

al que voluntarios de todo el mundo aportan sus fotografías. Esta iniciativa colaborativa ya ha desembocado en más de una decena de reconstrucciones digitales 3D de objetos destruidos por ISIS desde su incursión en 2003 en el Museo Nacional de Iraq.


Para conseguirlo se utiliza una tecnología que convierte las imágenes 2D en 3D. Con el mismo propósito, el proyecto New Palmyra

se dio a conocer hace unos meses. Un activista, preso por el régimen sirio, ha prestado 10 años de fotografías de las ruinas de Palmira en un intento de poder replicar en 3D lo que Daesh ha terminado de destruir.


Las maquetas de estas bellas ruinas pueden descargarse en la página web. El grupo busca, para que el legado de esta ciudad no caiga en el olvido. La reciente destrucción del Monasterio de San Elías – la iglesia cristiana más antigua de Irak – ha sido solo un ejemplo más de la campaña de barbarie cultural protagonizada por grupos terroristas como Al Qaeda, el Frente al Nusra y el Estado Islámico en Oriente y el norte de África que ha destruido hasta el momento más de 230 lugares históricos y amenaza a otros 500 más.

Con motivo de una iniciativa para dar a conocer el verdadero alcance de los efectos de los atentados contra el Patrimonio de la Humanidad en una región asolada por la guerra y la amenaza yihadista, la ONG The Antiquities Coalition

ha creado un mapa interactivo en el que los usuarios – a través de la información recogida por instituciones como la UNESCO – pueden informarse sobre las zonas patrimoniales “deliberadamente atacadas o señaladas para su destrucción por organizaciones violentas y extremistas no asociadas a Estado alguno” desde enero de 2011 hasta nuestros días.


En el mapa, al que se puede acceder pinchando en la imagen

se recogen los lugares destruidos y amenazados y los instrumentos empleados para su destrucción, y se señala a sus presuntos responsables.

“Con la destrucción de tesoros como San Elías, Palmira, el Museo de Mosul y la Mezquita del profeta Yunus”, apunta la presidenta y fundadora de The Antiquities Coalition, Deborah Lehr, grupos como “Estado Islámico persiguen intimidar y borrar la herencia de las diversas comunidades de Irak en un esfuerzo que amenaza a musulmanes, cristianos y decenas de minorías étnicas por igual”.

Por otra parte, reconstrucciones en 3D de grandes sitios arqueológicos sirios amenazados por la guerra estarán disponibles en la base de datos en línea “Syrian Heritage”:

Estas reconstrucciones son fruto de una vasta operación de digitalización de la ‘startup’ francesa Iconem en colaboración con la Dirección General de las Antigüedades y Museos de Siria (DGAM).

Mientras que centenares de sitios sirios fueron destruidos o pillados desde el inicio del conflicto en 2011, entre ellos los célebres templos de Bel y Balshamin en Palmira, centro de Siria, dinamitados por el grupo terrorista EIIL (Daesh, en árabe), Iconem viajó a fines de 2015 a Damasco, capital siria, para brindar material y formación a una quincena de arqueólogos sirios, precisa esta empresa en desarrollo en un comunicado.

Iconem, en asociación con Microsoft, el Instituto de Investigación en Informática francés (INRIA) y la Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), utiliza drones equipados de aparatos fotográficos que sobrevuelan los sitios, así como una tecnología innovadora para el tratamiento de imágenes conocida como fotogrametría, capaz de sintetizar miles de tomas para reproducir los monumentos con una gran precisión.


Entre los sitios ya digitalizados figura el Krak de los Caballeros, un inmenso castillo fortaleza de los cruzados medioevales ubicado al norte de Damasco, que data del siglo XI, la ciudadela de Damasco de la misma época, y la mezquita de los Omeyas también en la capital, aunque más antigua (siglo VIII), así como casas tradicionales del periodo otomano, el Palacio Azem, donde residía el gobernador, el teatro romano de Jableh y el sitio fenicio de Ugarit, del que proviene la más antigua escritura alfabética del mundo.

Iconem también ha digitalizado las colecciones de grandes museos sirios, entre los cuales figura el de Latakia.

Estas imágenes en 3D, publicadas progresivamente en los sitios de Iconem y de la DGAM, ofrecen visitas virtuales interactivas, videos en imágenes de síntesis y documentación para uso científico.

Ya hay cinco sitios de acceso libre: la mezquita de los Omeyas, el sitio de Ugarit, las casas damascenas, el teatro de Jableh y el Krak de los Caballeros. La colección íntegra estará disponible a partir de fines de mayo.

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Mapping the Destruction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

WCHV logo

Mapping the Destruction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Posted on Mar, 16, 2016

Contributed to WCHV by Danielle


Over the last few years the world has been watching helplessly the growth of intentional destruction of heritage sites in the Middle East, and therefore, tracking and finding ways to protect these sites is a critical goal.

The Washington, D.C.-based “Antiquities Coalition” was recently launched to create a map of Culture Under Threat in order to highlight the massive amount of deliberate destruction happening to historical sites in the Middle East and North Africa. This map include treasured sites like St. Elijah’s, Palmyra, the Mosul Museum, and the Mosque of the Prophet Younus and many more that the ISIS terrorists have intentionally left in destruction. The map only includes public data showing museums and sites designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The map also highlights 700 heritage sites throughout the 22 states of the Arab League, of which 230 have been destroyed. The mapping application includes a swiping tool to see the loss of heritage sites in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab Spring. It is the goal of organization to help raise awareness about the extent of the destruction across Iraq, Syria, and the entire region.

PDF of article here

Addressing the illicit trafficking of cultural property at the end of the market chain


Addressing the illicit trafficking of cultural property at the end of the market chain

13.03.2016 – Culture Sector


On Wednesday 2 March 2016, the Permanent Missions of Jordan and Italy to the United Nations, together with UNESCO, INTERPOL, and UNODC, organized the First Meeting on Art Markets of Stolen Works of Art as part of the partnership initiative “Protecting Cultural Heritage –an Imperative for Humanity: Acting together against the destruction and trafficking of cultural property by terrorist groups and organized crime”. It was chaired by the Ambassador H.E. Dina Kawar (Jordan) and Ambassador H.E. Inigo Lambertini (DPR of Italy) with the participation of other permanent representatives of member states, Ms. Emily Rafferty, Former director of Metropolitan Museum, as well as representatives of UNESCO, INTERPOL, UNODC, Antiquities Coalition and others.

Participants deliberated on where are the real final destination countries, what could be done to address this problem, what were the risk and the consequences of inaction. In this context, the discussions emphasized the need to address  the critical  issues at the “Final Destination Countries” and some participants highlighted  the importance of due diligence, careful search of provenance, border controls, training and awareness raising, the criminalization of specific harmful conduct or the establishment of administrative offences, international cooperation in response to crime, intelligence sharing, implementation of existing legal frameworks, cooperation of stakeholders, and the importance of implementing the current obligations on countering terrorist financing. 

Concrete recommendations were made targeting different stakeholders such as destination countries’ governments, museums, auction houses, international art market dealers, tour operators, companies specialized in the transport of antiquities, judges, magistrates, prosecutors, asset managers, bankers and investment advisors.   

The initiative “Protecting Cultural Heritage –an Imperative for Humanity: Acting together against the destruction and trafficking of cultural property by terrorist groups and organized crime” was launched last September and focuses on addressing the potential ways to act together against the destruction and trafficking of cultural property by terrorists and organized crime groups in all affected countries.

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Escalating the War on Looting


Escalating the War on Looting


Artifacts from the ancient Sumerican city of Lagash, in northern IraqArtifacts thought to be from the ancient Sumerican city of Lagash, in northern Iraq, seized by the Bulgarian police in 2015. International organizations are stepping up efforts to suppress the market for looted antiquities in hopes of cutting off incentive to supply them. Credit Laura Boushnak for The New York Times 

PARIS — Like the wars themselves, the looting of antiquities in Syria and other conflict zones in the Middle East is proving virtually impossible to stop, despite the best efforts of a host of international agencies, cultural organizations and dogged independent researchers.

As the pillaging continues in a region rich in layers of ancient civilizations, the international community is focusing on the marketplace, doing what it can to scare off demand in hopes that supply will shrink. “There wouldn’t be any looting if there wasn’t money to be made,” said Kathryn Walker Tubb, a lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.

In the past few years, the effort to intercept the illicit trade has intensified.

In February last year, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution banning trade in artifacts illegally removed from Syria since 2011 and from Iraq since 1990. The International Council of Museums has issued “red lists” for objects at risk in Iraq, Syria and now Libya. Last August, the State Department in Washington announced a $5 million reward for information that could disrupt the ransacking and looting of cultural sites by the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Last month, Unesco followed up its Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project, introduced in 2014 with the European Union, with a special task force that would deploy experts from Italy’s carabinieri force, with its long experience in tracking down looted art, to help hunt down stolen items.

The Asia Society and the Antiquities Coalition recently concluded an international conference on “cultural racketeering” with calls for special training for customs agents and support for local governments in conflict zones to catalogue and safeguard their treasures.

“We believe it is imperative to do what we can,” said Christine Anagnos, the executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which last October issued a set of “safe haven” protocols that offer protection for cultural property put at risk by wars and other disasters, with the guarantee that it will be returned to home countries once its safety can be assured. As of February, however, no offers have been made to deposit endangered objects for safekeeping in foreign museums, Ms. Anagnos said.

There have been scattered successes in recuperating smuggled antiquities from war zones. In March 2015, a police raid in Bulgaria uncovered a cache of statues and other objects thought to be from the ancient Sumerian city of Lagash, in southern Iraq. Also that month, the United States returned to the Iraqi government 65 stolen artifacts that had come from a Dubai-based dealer who had tried to sell them, with faked paperwork, to American museums and galleries.

Traffickers are also masters at coming up with fake documents that purport to show that the disputed object had been long held by mysterious collectors, now conveniently deceased. Such lack of evidence often means that the authorities often choose to avoid pursuing criminal charges in return for reclaiming the objects, which results in shady dealers getting off the hook, experts say.

But the publicity surrounding the effort to stem the flow of smuggled artifacts from Syria, Iraq and other war zones in the Middle East has had a dampening effect, said Christopher Marinello, the founder and director of the Art Recovery Group, an organization in London that has developed a database to recover lost and stolen artworks around the world.

“The media coverage has done such an incredible job that any reputable dealer will have taken a huge step backwards,” Mr. Marinello said. “We see dealers and auction houses coming in with questions about specific objects. We have seen catalogues for antiquities shrink.” Small items periodically appear on e-commerce sites: Two coins from Apamea, a looted archaeological site in Syria, recently showed up on eBay, priced at $84 and $133.

But most people agree that the market for larger, more valuable pieces has shrunk under international pressure. This concerns Ms. Tubb who fears that precious artifacts are being stashed in warehouses — in the Middle East but also in Europe — where they will remain hidden until the pressure eases.

“Who knows where these things are housed,” she said. “There are all sorts of different routes.”

Col. Ludovic Ehrhart, an investigator for France’s cultural theft police unit, told Le Monde that those trading in “blood antiquities” can afford to bide their time. “These long-standing networks wait three, five, even 10 years before they sell them on the official market, ‘’ he said.

The role played by terrorist groups such as Islamic State in the looting of antiquities from the Middle East has helped put a chill on the market, Mr. Marinello said. “It didn’t hurt that the F.B.I. has said you could be arrested for aiding international terrorism,” he said. “That is quite an incentive to not buy something.” Although Islamic State’s vicious attacks and subsequent pillaging of Syrian sites like Palmyra have attracted attention, there are other culprits.

“It is not just the Islamic State that is destroying or looting,” said Sam Hardy, a research associate at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, “although they have certainly upped the attention.”

The looting at Apamea, one of the largest and best preserved Roman and Byzantine sites in the world, took place on an industrial scale, as seen on satellite images that show the area pockmarked by a grid of more than 5,000 looting pits, at a time when the area was under the control of the Syrian government.

“That may not indicate looting that was directed by the regime,” said Mr. Hardy, “but it does suggest looting that benefited the regime.”

According to a 2015 report by the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiative, based on satellite images of 1,200 archaeological sites in Syria, more than 25 percent have been looted since the civil war began. Most of the pillaging happened in areas with weak governance, including places occupied by Kurdish and opposition forces, the report says.

Hard proof of the Islamic State’s involvement in antiquities trafficking came in May, when a United States-led raid on a compound in eastern Syria used by Abu Sayyaf, a commander identified as the director of the terrorist group’s oil smuggling and its trade in antique objects.

Abu Sayyaf, who was killed in the operation, was in possession of an odd assortment of artifacts — including an ivory plaque traced to the museum in Mosul, Iraq — Islamic State territory — as well as a collection of coins, bracelets and other easy-to-transport objects and a few obvious fakes.

The cache also revealed receipts for the 20 percent tax on precious materials — antiquities, but also minerals — collected from civilians by Islamic State. The total sum shown from these “tax” receipts reportedly amounted to $265,000, suggesting that the antiquities trade is just a small part of the group’s financing streams. But it shows the lengths to which the local population is willing to go to survive.

“War is always the worst time for cultural heritage, particularly in a part of the world that was a cradle of civilization,” Mr. Marinello said.

PDF of article here

To Fight ISIS, Art Dealers & Archaeologists Join Forces


To Fight ISIS, Art Dealers & Archaeologists Join Forces

Catherine Chapman — Mar 11 2016

Art Dealers

Inspired by the destruction of ancient sites, the #NEWPALMYRA project is digitally rebuilding cultural heritage like The Temple of Bel located in Palmyra, Syria. Render by CEBAS VT.

Stretching 20cm high, the exaggerated feminine curves of Halaf terracotta figurines are a symbol of fertility, dating back to Neolithic times in Syria.

Neil Brodie is an illicit trade expert who spent three months searching for these items online, now on a list of cultural objects at risk by the International Council of Museums, on He found 60, sold by seven dealers typically based outside London, for an average price of £102. Brodie thinks the majority are fake, but the rest could be from ISIS-held areas in Syria and Iraq. At an art auction, similar figurines could be worth up to an estimated $1,500.

The value of cultural heritage has always been a contentious issue within the world of art. Things intensified in 2014, when, as a global society, we began to bear witness to the irreversible amount of cultural cleansing being performed by ISIS in places like Mosul, Raqqa, and now Palmyra. While an unknown amount of antiques and artifacts have either been lost or destroyed, in a once divided scene of archaeologists, museums, collectors and dealers, a coalition of culture is starting to fight back.


A screenshot of The Antiquities Coalition’s Map of Culture Under Threat. Photo: The Antiquities Coalition

“There’s tons of material that could be from Syria,” says Brodie, who has been searching for pieces amid reports that looting by ISIS is being fuelled by demand from established antiquity markets like the US, Europe and China. “It could have come out of Syria 20 years ago or it could have come out last week. I don’t know. There’s no way of knowing.”

Plundering culturally rich locations for objects to be sold illegally on the legitimate market has been around since the discovery of buried treasure, and is a problem not confined to ISIS alone. Despite the presence of nation-based cultural property laws, conflict areas around the world face the loss of heritage, which archaeologists like Brodie believe will not be stopped if commercial values continue to be designated to these ancient items.

Yet, the situation in Syria has given way to something else entirely. Many, including Brodie, warn of how exaggerated numbers related to how much ISIS is making from the illicit sale of antiquities—reported as the terrorist organization’s second biggest earner, anywhere between $4 million to billions—entice looting, rather than diminish it, potentially bringing further damage to monuments and archaeological resources.

“It encourages Syrians who are without jobs or other resources to become looters and treasure hunters in their own backyard,” says Kate Fitz Gibbon, an art and cultural heritage lawyer based in the US. “The US State Department and archaeological extremists have hijacked the Syrian crisis to claim that cultural losses are due to a multi-billion-dollar market in illicit antiquities backed by ISIS, which does not and never has existed,” she tells The Creators Project over email.

Archaeologists and antiquity collectors and dealers share a passion for the past and its preservation, a mutual devotion that has, historically, never been communicated. While most archaeologists insist that cultural artifacts should remain in their local contexts, campaigners for the trade take an international view that artifacts should be shared, especially when some countries, like Syria, do not have the appropriate infrastructures to protect their own heritage.

Art Fraud

Before: Palmyra Mausoleum of Mohammad Bin Ali. Photo from militant social media account, courtesy The Antiquities Coalition.

Art Fraud2

After: Palmyra Mausoleum of Mohammad Bin Ali. Photo from militant social media account, courtesy The Antiquities Coalition

Although museums may be heavily dependent on donations by these antiquity collectors, however against the sale of looted material the legitimate market is, public examples of stolen artefacts in auction house catalogs have made the industry difficult to trust. And in spite of a lack of concrete evidence of so-called “blood antiquities” flooding the showrooms of New York or London, the prospect of terrorism being funded by the legitimate trade has called for the complete shutdown of the sale of Syrian antiquities, both by the UN and the US’ Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act (H.R. 1493). The bill, currently before Senate, will stop the import of antiquities into the United States that were illegally removed from Syria as of March 15, 2011, legislation similar to restrictions placed on cultural objects taken from Iraq after 1990.

However, since most looted items typically go underground for a period of five to ten years, according to US Homeland Security, establishing whether a piece has been stolen at this stage is on the borderline of impossible, making any policy seem reactive, rather than preventative.

“If you shut down the antiquities trade in the market countries, looting is still going to continue,” says James E. McAndrew, an international art theft expert and former member of the State Department’s Cultural Property Task Force. “The pieces are going to find a home and a buyer because it’s not always US-driven.”

McAndrew’s firsthand experience in dealing with investigations into the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage items globally, is that the most sought after pieces are likely to remain in neighboring countries—in Syria’s case, oil-rich destinations like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

While Saddam Hussein-era objects did make their way onto US shores—having since been returned to Iraq—McAndrew explains that previous claims of Gulf War antiquities showing up in US markets have yet to yield any results, and that the State Department’s $5 million award for any information pertaining to ISIS-financed cultural heritage items is unlikely to produce any returns either.


Before: Tomb of Jonah in Mosul, Iraq. Photo credit: Diyar (@DKurdistan) 24 July 2014. Image courtesy The Antiquities Coalition.
After: Tomb of Jonah in Mosul, Iraq. Photo Credit: Diyar (@DKurdistan) 24 July 2014. Image courtesy The Antiquities Coalition
“The only way to address the conflict is in the zone of the conflict,” McAndrew tells The Creators Project. “Support the countries surrounding the conflict area by putting much stronger enforcement at the point of entry.”

McAndrew and others feel that more needs to be done in source countries, efforts that international bodies and the 1970 UNESCO Convention, aimed at preventing the illicit trade of cultural heritage, have failed to address proactively. Time and time again, improvements to this problem have been obstructed by various art world agendas, but in the abomination that is ISIS, a new period has begun.

“Different entities, the archaeological community, collectors, auction houses and museums, are trying to reach across the table to come up with some solutions,” says McAndrew. “That’s finally the right thing to do.”

In September 2015, the State Department partnered with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to bring together a range of experts, all affected by the ISIS threat to culture and those objects yielding a bountiful information about our shared human civilization. Whether trader or excavator, all are solution-driven.


A digitally recreated Temple of Bel located in Palmyra, Syria, an example of digital recreation from the #NEWPALMYRA project. Render by Areebonary.

“What I think we can all agree on is that this is a major global crime,” says Deborah Lehr, Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition. “There are many players and it’s very complicated to determine what the tract is. It’s no different to what happens in the gun or sex trade.

Lehr is working with the University of Chicago and a team of archaeologists, economists and sociologists to produce an accurate estimate on how much money is being made off the sale of looted antiquities in the areas of Iraq and Syria.

“The biggest challenge in this field is that there’s no real information or statistics on the size of this illegal trade,” says Lehr, a statement that even the trade itself might agree with.

On the other side of the Atlantic, differences are also being put aside to find a way to tackle the illegal trade of cultural heritage, endeavors that may be too late for Syria, but will aim to prevent this happening in whichever country that next finds themselves amidst war and terror.

“In Britain, we have open dialogue with the trade to try to come together with some kind of pragmatic compromise between the interest of all groups,” says Brodie. “We could sit around for another 20 years doing nothing, or we could try to sit down and try to get some kind of agreement in place, which would probably be far from ideal, but would be better than nothing.”

PDF of article here 

Culture in Crossfire 2016: Presenters Reveal New Research Methodologies and Potential Solutions

On March 4, 2016 the Antiquities Coalition participated in a conference hosted by the Middlebury Institute for International Studies (MIIS) and Monterey Terrorism and Research Education Program (MONTREP) entitled, Culture in the Crossfire: The Security and Policy Implications of the Trafficking and Destruction of Antiquities. This multi-disciplinary conference is the third such event the institute and program have held in recent years, demonstrating the military and security communities’ growing interest in the issue of culture under threat in areas of conflict.

IMG_0151The event was comprised of three panels, Panel 1: “Antiquities Trafficking and Destruction in the Middle East,” Panel 2: “A Global Survey of Cultural Heritage Under Threat,” and Panel 3: “Conceptualizing New Public-Private Policy Directions.” Each of panels was followed by a moderated discussion with the presenters. Colonel Matthew Bogdanos presented the keynote lecture on his work in Iraq following the looting of the Baghdad Museum. His lecture provided details on many of the challenges during the Iraq war that parallel the hurdles faced in the region today.

IMG_0149 (1)The first panel examined the recent events that have spurred an increase in looting and trafficking activities in the Middle East and included presentations from David Karg of Checkmate IQ, Dr. Amr al Azm of Shawnee State University, Allison Cuneo from the ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives, Mahmoud Abdalla, the director of the Arabic School at MIIS, and the Antiquities Coalition’s Chief of Staff, Katie Paul. Panelists’ research focused on Iraq, Syria and Egypt and the current state of antiquities crimes the region and went beyond the identification of the problem and revealed new methods toward actionable solutions. . The countries discussed are among those facing the greatest increase in illicit heritage activities since 2011 Arab Spring destabilization and subsequent conflicts.

IMG_0128The second panel explored the implications of threats to cultural heritage beyond the Middle East, including in areas not currently facing conflict. Panelists explored incidents in history that reveal lessons learned as the Middle East conflicts progress. Comparisons were also drawn between illicit trafficking of IMG_0165antiquities and other trafficking patterns such as drugs, lending new insights into ways of understanding the current crisis in the MENA region. Panelists included Phil Williams from the University of Pittsburgh, Chasing Aphrodite author Jason Feltch, and the Antiquities Coalition’s executive director, Tess Davis.

The final panel of the day addressed policy solutions to the supply and demand aspects of the trade. Panelists included Mark Vlasic from Georgetown University Law Center, Erik Nemeth, researcher for RAND and founder of, and Colette Loll of Art Fraud Insights. Potential steps toward solutions included new technologies and quantitative data on market trends.

The research presented at the #CultureinCrossfire2016 conference provided a wide range of solutions-driven research that has potential for measurable impact on the illicit trade and examined new information on progressive methodologies, policy issues and potential solutions.

MENA Diplomats Convene in Washington to Address #CultureUnderThreat


AC MEI DC luncheonOn Wednesday, March 9th the Antiquities Coalition and Middle East Institute held a roundtable discussion with diplomats from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) on solutions to address #CultureUnderThreat, the first gathering of these embassies in Washington, DC to discuss this issue.

The systematic destruction of heritage from violent extremist organizations is a crime of war and harbinger of genocide, while the traffic in conflict antiquities has emerged as a significant funder of these terrorist organizations’ operations in the MENA region. Tourist sites, museums, religious institutions and more are all threatened. The attacks have been increasing in frequency over the past four years.  Priceless artifacts from the MENA region are being trafficked and sold at the hands of terror groups and criminal networks, which funds the crime and terrorism that has swept many nations in the region.

AC MEI DC luncheon 2The intent of the roundtable in Washington, DC was to identify key regional concerns related to antiquities destruction and trafficking, develop common areas of interest, and determine specific goals for the regional Task Force established by the Cairo Declaration. The Declaration was signed by 10 Arab League states at the May 2015 Cairo Conference which was co-hosted by the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Antiquities Coalition, the Middle East Institute, and UNESCO. The Second Annual #CultureUnderThreat conference will take place this summer in the region.

By identifying their shared challenges and recognizing the common hurdles they face, these nations will be working together to close the systematic gaps and move toward more coordinated efforts. The outcome of the meeting was a major push for actionable solutions moving forward as the nations were able to identify common challenges they have faced individually, including in some of the very systems meant to help them reclaim their cultural patrimony.  

The roundtable discussion was attended by delegates from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, the Department of State and the Arab League. The nations will reconvene on a regular basis in preparation for the Second Annual #CultureUnderThreat conference this summer. The efforts taken by each of these nations to work together on such a critical issue that they all share shines light upon the crisis they face as a regional community and serves as an unprecedented cooperation on combatting culture under threat.

The Antiquities Coalition is pleased to be partnering with the Middle East Institute, and many other organizations and individuals who are dedicated to halting the stem of heritage destruction across the MENA region and around the globe.

Ancient Religious Sites Destroyed by Extremists

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Ancient Religious Sites Destroyed by Extremists

ISIS and other terror groups have found a new weapon: the mass destruction and looting of invaluable cultural and religious sites. Referred to as cultural cleansing, this type of terrorism acts as propaganda, even as a recruitment tool. And, a little-known fact, the looted goods are sometimes sold on the black market — sometimes for millions of dollars — lining the pockets of violent extremists. One group trying to protect these treasures is The Antiquities Coalition. They just released a new weapon of their own: the interactive Culture Under Threat Map. 

Deborah LehrFounder and Chair of The Antiquities Coalition
Katie A. Paulanthropologist and Chief of Staff of The Antiquities Coalition

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Listen to the full radio interview here

PDF of article here

Syrie, un drame total


Syrie, un drame total


Au début du conflit syrien, le groupe terroriste Daech n’était qu’une petite coalition de groupuscules musulmans cherchant à restaurer le califat en Syrie. Aujourd’hui, Daech est un groupe terroriste qui menace le monde entier. Al-Qaïda, dont les attentats de 2001 ont provoqué l’intervention américaine en Afghanistan, s’est vu offrir un second souffle grâce au conflit syrien.

5.000 ans d’histoire culturelle syrienne détruits, un cinquantième de la population syrienne disparu, un afflux de migrants qui a inondé l’Europe… Les conséquences des cinq années de guerre en Syrie sont lourdes. A l’heure actuelle, un cessez-le-feu fragile mais d’envergure est observé en Syrie pour la première fois depuis le début du conflit. En mars 2016, la Syrie entrera dans sa sixième année de guerre. Le conflit militaire a débuté dans le contexte des révolutions arabes en Tunisie et en Egypte par des manifestations demandant un changement de gouvernement. Actuellement, personne ne sait quel sera le sort de la Syrie. Le site EADaily a calculé le prix payé par la Syrie pour son « printemps arabe ».

1/5e de la population syrienne a quitté le pays
En 2011, selon l’Onu, il y avait près de 21 million d’habitants en Syrie, dont 250.000 ont trouvé la mort durant la guerre. Le conflit militaire en Syrie est devenu le conflit le plus sanglant de l’Histoire depuis la Seconde guerre mondiale. 45% des Syriens ont été forcés d’abandonner leurs maisons, 6,3 millions ont migré au sein de leur propre pays tandis que 4 millions ont quitté la Syrie et se trouvent actuellement en Turquie, en Jordanie, en Irak, en Egypte et dans les pays de l’Union européenne.
Si on totalise le nombre de morts, de blessés et de réfugiés, c’est près d’un quart de la population syrienne qui a été directement touchée au cours des cinq années du conflit. L’espérance de vie des survivants a baissé de 70 à 55 ans.

Economie: 85% de la population sous le seuil de pauvreté
Les pertes économiques dues aux cinq années de guerre sont estimées à 255 milliards de dollars (234,6 milliards d’euros). Selon Alexandre Dynkine, expert à l’Institut de l’économie mondiale et des affaires étrangères, la remise sur pied de l’économie syrienne coûtera 100 milliards de dollars (92 milliards d’euros) par an. Le pays pourrait atteindre son niveau de 2010 dans 9 ans seulement.

L’extrémisme musulman
Au début du conflit syrien, le groupe terroriste Daech n’était qu’une petite coalition de groupuscules musulmans cherchant à restaurer le califat en Syrie. Aujourd’hui, Daech est un groupe terroriste qui menace le monde entier. Al-Qaïda, dont les attentats de 2001 ont provoqué l’intervention américaine en Afghanistan, s’est vu offrir un second souffle grâce au conflit syrien. Quant au groupe terroriste du Front al-Nosra, il est devenu, avec ses alliés, la force de frappe de l’ »opposition syrienne modérée ».

La tragédie syrienne de l’Europe
L’Union européenne subit déjà les conséquences de la guerre en Syrie. Il s’agit tout d’abord d’un afflux massif de migrants qui arrivent en Europe de manière incessante. En 2015, 900.000 migrants sont arrivés dans les pays de l’Union européenne et 100.000 rien que sur les deux premiers mois de 2016. Ce flot a provoqué une des plus graves crises migratoires de l’histoire européenne et a remis en question l’existence même de l’UE. Mais l’Europe est également confrontée à un phénomène nouveau, à savoir le fait que des Européens partent au Proche-Orient afin de faire le djihad. Près de 5.000 citoyens de l’Union européenne sont déjà partis en Syrie et en Irak. Les attentats de Paris ont montré qu’ils revenaient et créaient des réseaux terroristes sur le sol européen.

Patrimoine: 5.000 ans d’histoire perdus
Selon les données de l’ONG américaine The Antiquities Coalition, des centaines de monuments et de sites représentants 5.000 ans d’histoire culturelle ont été détruits sur les cinq années de guerre, y compris les six sites inscrits au patrimoine mondial l’UNESCO. Il s’agit par exemple du mausolée du Bey Mohammed Ben Ali, une des personnalités les plus respectées du monde musulman. Au total, les extrémistes ont détruit 50 tombeaux situés sur les territoires qu’ils contrôlent en Syrie. La Syrie est le théâtre d’un conflit armé depuis mars 2011. Selon l’Onu, dont les dernières statistiques remontent à 18 mois faute de données, cette guerre a déjà fait plus de 250.000 morts et poussé des millions de personnes à l’exil. Les troupes gouvernementales syriennes combattent les groupes terroristes dont les plus dangereux sont l’Etat islamique (EI, Daech) et le Front al-Nosra. La Russie et les Etats-Unis ont convenu d’un cessez-le-feu en Syrie à compter du 27 février à minuit. Les frappes contre Daech, le Front al-Nosra et d’autres groupes reconnus comme terroristes par le Conseil de sécurité de l’Onu se poursuivront néanmoins.


PDF of the article here

Antiquities Coalition Commends ICC on Prosecution of Timbuktu Attacks

Timbuktu, UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Antiquities Coalition commends the International Criminal Court (ICC) on its work to end impunity for war crimes against cultural heritage.

This morning the ICC held the confirmation of charges hearing for Ahmad Al-Mahdi Al Faqi, the Islamic militant now facing trial for the targeted destruction of historic sites in the ancient city of Timbuktu. Today’s hearing will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed against Al Faqi. If so, this will be the first ICC case to prosecute heritage crimes, as well as the first brought for human rights abuses during the Malian Civil War.
Al Faqi was an active member of Ansar Dine, the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization, which seized and occupied much of Northern Mali in mid 2012. During this conflict, he allegedly directed attacks against at least nine sacred mausoleums and one mosque in Timbuktu, the World Heritage Site renowned for its Islamic architecture dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. These attacks were part of Ansar Dine’s broader campaign against the people and heritage of Mali.
The Antiquities Coalition has long joined calls to prosecute deliberate attacks on cultural heritage as war crimes under international law. On March 6, we wrote the ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda urging the court to immediately open an investigation into such crimes by Daesh, which has targeted ancient, cultural, and religious sites throughout Iraq and Syria. The ICC has yet to launch a case against Daesh — for these or other atrocity crimes — but the Al-Mahdi prosecution sets a strong precedent.
 We will continue to follow this important case, but in the meantime, you can learn more here.