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The Response of the U.S. and International Community to the Crisis: A Roundtable Discussion About Cultural Heritage Destruction in Yemen

February 19, 2019

February 23, 2019

2:00pm – 3:30pm

Freer Gallery of Art, Meyer Auditorium

Admission is Free

To call attention to the destruction of Yemen’s heritage, the Freer Gallery of Art is hosting an event entitled Culture at Risk: Yemen’s Heritage Under Threat on February 23, 2019. Organized into three panels, the event will convene a plethora of experts to examine the consequences for cultural heritage and collective memory, highlight the Yemeni response, and consider the international community’s responsibility in this crisis.

At 2:00 pm, the Antiquities Coalition Chairman Deborah Lehr will moderate a panel discussion about threats posed to Yemen’s rich cultural heritage from armed conflict, violent extremism, and cultural racketeering. She will be joined by: Marwan Dammaj, Minister of Culture from the Republic of Yemen; Ambassador Wafa Bughaighis from the Embassy of Libya; Luigi Marini from the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations; and Gerald Feierstein, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen and Senior Vice President of the Middle East Institute. Together, they will explore how the international community can—and should—respond to this crisis. They will also consider why policymakers should care about these crimes against culture, what legal and policy tools are available to combat them, and what is the role of governments and the United Nations. This session will be chaired by Antiquities Coalition Executive Director Tess Davis.

Threats to Yemen’s Cultural Heritage

As Saturday’s program at the Smithsonian will demonstrate, Yemen’s rich cultural history continues to fall victim to the ongoing conflict, including destruction due to airstrikes, and cultural racketeering at the hands of terrorists and militants.

Since the emergence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009, experts have warned that cultural racketeering in Yemen could be funding violent extremism. With the start of the Yemeni Civil War in 2015, this looting has increased to an industrial scale. Reports by experts on the ground describe a Houthi ‘Antiquities Mafia’ based out of the historical spice market, Bab al-Yaman, in Houthi controlled Sana’a. The November 15, 2018, report from the Mwatanta Organization for Human Rights: The Degradation of History Violations Committed by the Warring Parties against Yemen’s Cultural Property highlights not only the cultural destruction through airstrikes but also looting perpetrated by the Houthis, al-Qaeda, and the Abu Abbas Brigade. One particular entry of interest is documented on Wednesday, September 16th, 2015, when a group of masked men believed to be al-Qaeda entered the church of St. Joseph after the withdrawal of the Houthis. The remaining items in the church, such as wood and icons, were stolen.

As the largest art market in the world, estimated to be worth $26.2 billion in 2017, the United States is an attractive final destination for smuggled items. In fact, between 2008- 2018 declared imports of “Art, Collectors’ Pieces and Antiques” (as categorized under HTS Code Chapter 97) from Yemen have amounted to $8,009,963. Experts believe that undeclared imports are much higher.

International and National Seizures

Even before the civil war, there have been several high-profile cases of illicit Yemeni antiquities making their way to Western art markets.

In 2003, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigation of the Phoenix Ancient Art Gallery and it’s owners, Hicham and Ali Aboutaam, found that they “were allegedly trafficking in illegally obtained art and antiquities” from Yemen. The Aboutaam brothers attempted to sell, via Sotheby’s auction house, a piece known as the South Arabian Alabaster Stele valued at approximately $20,000 to $30,000. Sotheby’s authenticated the stele but declined to auction this artifact. ICE’s attaché in Rome assisted and obtained proof from Yemeni authorities that the stele was stolen. It was forfeited to the U.S. government in December 2003 and subsequently returned to Yemen.

In 2013, the Customs Authority in Switzerland started an investigation on five Yemeni cultural artifacts. According to Swiss authorities, the items traveled from Qatar to Switzerland and were then deposited in the Geneva Freeport between 2009-2010. It was years later, in 2013, that suspicions as to the origin of the objects were first raised during a customs inspection. The customs office contacted the cultural authorities in Bern whose expert confirmed the artifacts were genuine, prompting the start of criminal proceedings in February 2016.

More recently, on August 15, 2018, Aden port officials foiled an attempt to smuggle Yemeni antiques, on its way to an address in Djibouti, a known transit point for antiquities coming out of the Arabian Peninsula. Col. Shallal Al Shoubagi of Yemen’s harbor security force, stated that the artifacts were brought to Aden from rebel-controlled Sana’a and were a part of Houthi plans to fund their insurgency.  The artifacts from early Islamic history: jars, jugs, jambiyas, necklaces, rings – some made of silver mixed with gold, housewares made of silver and gems, in addition to boxes made of decorative wood. Yemen’s Culture Minister, Marwan Dammaj who will be speaking on the panel, has accused the Houthis of looting museums and ancient sites and selling artifacts abroad. He said the rebels had smuggled out thousands of artifacts and manuscripts since they seized the capital in 2014.

For more information about the event, please click here.