It’s hardly a secret that trafficking of cultural goods and art pieces ranks third on the profitability list after drugs and weapons trafficking. For example, a recent WTO report states that in 2016 alone authorities of various seized well over 8300 such items, of which 6 600 were antiques. The contraband flow is mainly heading to the United States, with main trafficking routes running through Turkey and Lebanon. Across the US there’s a number of towns that serve as a hub for the transportation of stolen relics, among which one can find Jacksonville (Florida) and Washington, DC, where antiques are being sorted and then redirected to unknown destinations within the state.
Colored revolutions and military conflicts that have been plaguing the Middle East over last decades have spawned a massive market of stolen art monuments, which has only grown bigger since the war in Iraq. Generally, marauders are trying to smuggle both whole objects, as well as those pieces of them that they deem most valuable, if they fail to get the whole artifact past the border. Those are to be found everywhere, committing theft in museums, private homes and archaeological sites. Such crimes is a daily occurrence across the war-torn region and the number of those willing to get rich overnight keeps growing.
That’s how art pieces are being trafficked from poor countries to those that are deemed developed, like EU states and the US, with the better part of these committed in the period when the West unleashed a string of armed intervention against sovereign Middle Eastern, which casted a huge blow to local law enforcement agencies that were no longer capable of safeguarding the cultural heritage of their states.
If you take a closer look into matter and pay attention to the data released by Interpol and various auction houses, it becomes obvious that the absolute majority of Oriental antiques are being smuggled by American servicemen, both former and acting that have been over the course of the last two decades deployed all across the Arab East. American military personnel has huge bags to pack everything that, in their opinion, is of high value and will be in demand back at home. While acting as liberators when they are taking various cities, those soldiers can give local looters a run for their money when it comes to the plunder of local museums and private houses. Like the medieval Crusaders, young soldiers are returning home with all sorts of precious trophies.
But how would they manage to smuggle priceless works of art across border control? Everyone who is familiar with the way things are being run in America knows the answer for this question. After all, US servicemen are relieved of the need to show the contents of their luggage when passing border control. Therefore, ancient relics of the East is being smuggled across the American border with an unprecedented ease.
But then there’s yet another question that needs answering: how do people who possess no knowledge of the antiques are capable of evaluating the value of goods they’re stealing?
The answer to this question is also simple – they don’t. American soldiers sell priceless art objects would typically sell those pieces on eBay, getting a small percentage of the actual value of the relic, which nevertheless means huge profits for young military men. Items from precious metals are often gifted to relatives or even getting smelted. Some items find their refugee on the shelves as souvenir of the yet another “Eastern campaign”.
This situation is exacerbated by the fact that that Middle-Eastern states have been safeguarding the cultural heritage of a number of ancient civilization. Museums in Syria, Kuwait, Egypt and Iraq were rich in pre-Christian European art before most of them got plundered.
Americans lawmakers are indeed making attempts to stop the criminal business. Nevertheless, the US still ranks first among the states engaged in scandalous lawsuits related to illegal trafficking of antiques. Not so long ago, a number of art dealers and a collector who helped them were charged with organizing a criminal network that smuggled ancient treasures of the Egyptian art. To avoid customs controls, those criminals would smuggle ancient sarcophagi, ritual vessels and statues of limestone age of about 2000 years old in boxes marked with “wood panels” sign.
The criminal network organized by Mousa Khouli, Salem Alshdaifat, Ayman Ramadan together with a well-known collector Joseph A.Lewis II, that was charged in the US with establishment of a criminal organization engaged in arts smuggling and money laundering, was described by the Egyptian Minister for Antiquities as one of the most proficient criminal groups engaged in trafficking to date.
However, criminal organizations are not the only ones that are engaged in this highly lucrative business, as terrorist groups across the Middle East are also more than willing to profit from such illegal activities.
It’s been reported that in Syria, in those areas that lie beyond the grasp of Damascus, illegal groups of archaeologists and art historians who conduct unauthorized excavations to retrieve precious art items to get them sold on the black market. Terrorist groups operating in Syria provide security for those archaeologists, while being paid handsomely in American currency for their criminal activities.
In monetary terms, the total amount of stolen cultural relics from Syria that are being sold annually has reached 50 billion dollars.
As it has become evident from a massive counter-terrorist operation conducted in Italy, various radicals operating in Europe are sending considerable sums of money to support the “just terrorist cause” at home. Italian law enforcement agencies after searching a number of flats in the regions of Veneto, Lombardy, Sardinia and Emilia-Romagna managed to detain 14 individuals suspected of cooperation with Islamic militants in Syria. Among the detainees there are 10 citizens of Syria who are involved in illegal financial operations, while the remaining four are Syrian and Moroccan militants of the radical group known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Over the course of 4 years, this group managed to send more than 2 million euros to Syria to finance terrorist activities. It is yet to be confirmed that the huge sums of money they obtained in Italy were received from a wide range of activities, including the sale of cultural values illegally exported from Syria.
That is why the problem of marauders operating across the Middle East today is a common problem of the whole international community, and not just the countries affected by the militaristic policies of the United States.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”