“Why, when we’ve seen people burnt alive, murdered in ways that you wouldn’t butcher an animal, does this resonate so much?” an Iraqi-American scholar told Boston Globe correspondent Thanassis Cambanis earlier this year, choking through words while speaking about how ISIS members destroyed ancient statues in the Mosul Museum of Iraq.
“I can’t explain it,” he said.
In the same piece, Cambanis described the event as the moment that made a Lebanese colleague of his — who has seen and reported on countless unspeakable things in the region — crack. “That’s it, it’s gone. When they’re done, all our culture will be gone,” she said to him, through tears. “If I want to see the great history of my region, I’ll have to visit a museum in London."
Or perhaps a private collection somewhere in the Middle East. Mounting evidence suggests that while ISIS might be willing to destroy some of the world's most treasured monuments for the sake of viral propaganda videos, it is also likely involved in the systematic looting and sale of illicit antiquities, which helps fund the terrorist group.
Two months ago at a symposium the U.S. State Department held with partners at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York, the federal government released a treasure trove of material suggesting that ISIS is deeply involved in antiquities trafficking. Digital photos of items from seized devices were found, along with organizational charts, and — perhaps most troubling of all — ISIS-stamped licenses permitting certain individuals to excavate artifacts, along with receipts for payment of a "war booty" tax.
At that same event, the State Department announced a cash reward of up to $5 million for any information that might lead to the breakup of ISIS' alleged oil and ancient art networks.
"These ancient coins, stone, glass, mosaic fragments travel organized routes to black markets in the Middle East, Europe and the Persian Gulf. The profits return to line the pockets of these extremists, funding more savagery, more terror, and more devastation," Antony Blinken, the deputy Secretary of State, remarked at the event.
Luckily, there's a few people who keep an eye on these things. Following the event, I started digging into the blogging underworld of those who observe and research the black market of what some call "blood antiquities." What I found was a tiny but buzzing ecosystem of academics, hobbyists, and journalists who are dedicated to stopping the looting and trafficking of antiquities across the world. Often they do this work with little or very little funding, regardless of the international security concerns that are now intertwined with their research.
"We're a small community that's been thrown into the spotlight because of the rise of ISIS," Pulitzer Prize finalist Jason Felch, author of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum, and founder of the blog Chasing Aphrodite, told me. "It's a necessary and costly discipline, and we see it in the headlines almost everyday, but sadly there's not much funding for it."
Just how little funding is shocking, I would find. When speaking to staff of the Trafficking Culture project at the University of Glasgow, Scotland — a major academic research project aimed at identifying and stopping the illegal trade of antiquities — I was told that the project is running out of funding in January.
"A lot of people care about the past and about heritage, but no one wants to pay for it," Dr. Donna Yates, a researcher at the project and creator of the blog Anonymous Swiss Collector, told me. "A lot of people respect and use our research, from other academics, to reporters like yourself, all the way up to governments and inter-government agencies."
"Those of us not funded for so much research time, or without clear jobs in February, will have to focus less on the topic… So is the sad state of academic research funding," she added.
But the success the group and some other parts of the small community have had up to this point is worth underscoring.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va. might be holding a dark secret which until now has gone unreported.
Inside the annals of that building lie two pieces of ancient art—a marble statue of a young boy and a large vase—which according to Christos Tsirogiannis, a research assistant for Trafficking Culture, were illegally looted before being sold to the museum. Using confiscated Polaroid photos from the stashes of some of the world's most notorious illicit antiquities dealers, Tsirogiannis was able to identify and trace the origins of both objects, and to finally conclude that they are illicit in origin.
Academic investigative reports of both objects were shared with Fusion and have not previously been published.
On what grounds did the museum make the purchase? Did it do enough background research before the sale? In an email to Tsirogiannis, the museum's current Deputy Director for Collections and Facilities Management it did not have any further information on the “private collections,” whose purchase by the museum was announced in a 1980 newspaper article cited in Tsirogiannis' research.
"We are aware of the arguments that have been made," chief curator Michael Taylor told me. "But the fact is we have never received a claim for these pieces." The museum had never seen the confiscated Polaroid images of the items until I passed them along in an email, he said. Senior staff is reviewing them, Taylor said, adding that "not all of the Polaroids necessarily relate to works that were stolen." If a claim for the items were to come along, he said the museum would react accordingly.
These kinds of issues pop up routinely with these cases, said Tsirogiannis. It happens because so many pieces have been stripped of their archaeological context and because recent collection histories are routinely muddled by false paperwork on the seller's end. There may also be a hesitancy on the buyer’s end to do true due diligence, he said, for fear of what might be uncovered.
"When we see something in our everyday lives that is illegal and wrong, don't we have the responsibility to do what we can to make it right? This is how it is with my research," Tsirogiannis told me.
In both reports, he ends his findings with the same words: "Based on the evidence presented, the VMFA is obliged to contact the Italian authorities about the case," citing standard museum guidelines.
Since 2006, Tsirogiannis estimates, he and his peers have identified about 200 illicit antiquities that have been successfully repatriated to Italy from North American museums, private collectors, antiquities dealers, galleries and auction houses. Major dealers and traffickers have been convicted. Upstanding institutions, like the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (where the State Department held the symposium about the issue) have been forced to give up prized possessions.
The matches are often made by Tsirogiannis and select others who have been given access to the confiscated files of convicted smugglers, the most notorious of whom are Giacomo Medici, who specialized in looted Italian works; and Gianfranco Becchina, also specializing in Italian works.
"What you find is there is a continuation and a link, from looters, middlemen, to dealers, auctions, and private collections," Tsirogiannis said of his methodology. "I check auction houses and galleries all around the world … and I frequently identify antiquities depicted in these confiscated archives."
When he gets a match, Tsirogiannis publishes his findings quickly through a blog, especially if it is an item up for auction. His preferred news breaking blog is Looting Matters, operated by a friend of his. Afterwards, when authorities have been notified and the information has traveled through the blogosphere, he works on the academic publishing side of the job.
Earlier this year, over $1 million in artifacts were removed from Christie's auction house — one of the premier auction houses in the world — thanks to his findings.
Paper trails left behind from other convicted dealers lead to more discoveries and busts; just as I was writing this, Chasing Aphrodite reported that federal agents had seized an illegally looted statue from India that was on display at Ball State University’s Owsley Museum in Indiana. The process of recovering and repatriating the stolen statue was started by an Indian blogger who identified it in July.
"With the help of the public, the authorities including the police should take all efforts to bring home this statue," the blogger, Vijay Kumar, wrote on his original post. Chasing Aphrodite's Felch considers Kumar a friend, and through his blog, he helped publicize the discovery, leading it to the right hands in the U.S. Less than four months after the original post, the object is on its way back to India. This is how the wholly unofficial network of investigators operates.
Art heists, respected institutions, international trafficking rings, shady characters, falsified paperwork, repatriotization, victory. It's the stuff of a Hollywood movie. But Yates, the researcher at Trafficking Culture, says that while the work is commendable the bigger fight is "in figuring out how to protect sites on the ground, how to break up smuggling networks, and how to make people not want to buy antiquities."
Now, with the globe's attention to the Middle East, Yates felt compelled to remind me that looting happens everywhere, not just Iraq and Syria. Her work currently focuses on looting in South Asia and Latin America. "ALL the objects on the market from those countries are looted (really)," she wrote me in an email. It would be catastrophic for future generations if we only turned our attention to the Middle East, and forgot about everything else.
Yet clearly, the region's ongoing conflict and unique place in world history presents a particular problem, even though nobody's quite sure of its scope. Thomas Ayling, who runs an archaeology blog partly dedicated to cataloging the destruction and looting of ancient art, has attempted to map the looted sites in Iraq. "We likely will not have a very full picture of the destruction for many years — in Iraq alone lie 6,000 undug [known sites] that have barely been able to be dug since the first Gulf War in 1991," he told me. "One of the great tragedies for me is not only the destruction of sites we know about … but the destruction of many undug tells about which we will know never know."
Researchers have frustratingly little access to the region, he said. The only available data comes from satellite images, and from locals on the ground, often acting independently and without any kind of funding. "Real people dying for this cause and for these monuments to human achievement," Ayling said of them.
Indeed, Syrian archaeologists have been killed for trying to preserve world heritage sites.
All of which underscores the need to be able to pay for the important work these scientist-slash-criminal investigators are doing. While the researchers I spoke to don't doubt that looting is going on in ISIS-controlled territories, nobody suggested that there is an uptick in goods from the region flooding the world markets. And no researcher has definitively drawn a link between patternized looting and the funding of the largest terrorist organization in the world. So if looting and selling is going on, as many suspect, it's happening in an investigative vacuum.
"Everyone is talking about it, but no one is doing actually actively, anything. Not even one case has been proven," Tsirogiannis, of Trafficking Culture, told me.
"Look what I do," he continued. "I am producing evidence, identifying objects, objects I find are being repatriated, and all this proves that my research is correct, that my thesis is correct. So why on an international level is there still not even one team that works on [ISIS]?"
If the international community doesn't work together either through academia, governments or NGOs to fund researchers like him (but not specifically him, he wanted me to stress), then the hope of identifying and dismantling these organizations across the world is greatly diminished, he said.
"Within the last fifteen years we have five lost opportunities for examining how and if antiquities are leaving conflict zones. We lost Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria," Tsirogiannis warned.
"What about Yemen?" I asked him.
"Yes, yes. Yemen too, you're right. Six countries in 15 years," he said.
"Tell me: What does this mean for the future of the world?" he asked. "This is escalating into something bigger."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.