Martin Roth, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, is calling for a joint force of international museums to combat the trade in antiquities trafficked out of Syria by Islamic State (IS). The proposed alliance should focus on exchanging information and raising awareness among galleries, auction houses and the public, Roth says.
“There’s no American, European or even British network of museums focusing on this issue,” says Roth, who adds that both he and Vernon Rapley, the V&A’s head of security, have held preliminary discussions with colleagues at major institutions in Europe and the US. In June, Roth visited Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister. He spent his time there briefing relief bodies and non-governmental organisations on the importance of Syria’s cultural heritage and works of art.
“My main purpose is to help to stop, or at least to make more difficult, the way IS takes objects out of the country and sells them here on the art market,” Roth says. “What’s happening in Syria is a humanitarian disaster. Nobody wants to talk about the art.” But preserving the country’s heritage is deeply important, he says, because once the fighting is over, no matter how long it lasts, the rebuilding will begin.
Numerous accounts of looting by IS have emerged over the past few months. The terrorist organisation is reportedly allowing the widespread ransacking of archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, making money by levying a tax on looters operating in the territory it controls. But it is not just IS that is raiding sites; every party in the Syrian conflict appears to be involved. One smuggler told Time magazine that President Bashar Assad’s regime is selling antiquities to pay its soldiers, and Free Syrian Army fighters told the Washington Post that looting antiquities is now a crucial source of income.
Objects are being taken from Syria to transit countries on its borders, such as Turkey and Lebanon, before being smuggled to Europe and the US. “We are targeting museums in market countries and transit countries,” Rapley says. Museums can provide the expert advice that law enforcement agencies lack, he says, adding that he has had numerous conversations with the British police. “The police or border-agency officers are responsible for confiscating smuggled Syrian objects found in Britain, but they have problems with storage and conservation; they need a lot of support from those with expert knowledge. We have that knowledge here.”
Individual countries have been slow to react to the widespread destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage, but there are signs that an international consensus is beginning to emerge. Monika Grütters, Germany’s minister of culture, announced last month that she plans to crack down on the trade in smuggled Syrian objects. Under new legislation, which she hopes to have in place by the beginning of 2016, cultural goods will need an official export licence from their country of origin to enter Germany. The new law will amend the existing 2007 Act on the Return of Cultural Objects, which, according to reports, has not resulted in a single restitution.
In Turkey, Ömer Çelik, the culture minister, released a statement last month that said the government is trying to stop Syrian antiquities being smuggled across its borders. “Legal proceedings have been initiated with regards to some artefacts believed to be of Syrian origin,” he said.
Meanwhile, more than 250 academics from the Middle East, Europe and the US have signed an open letter to the United Nations calling for a ban on the trade in Syrian antiquities. “IS now runs sophisticated looting operations, working with professional contractors to dig up archaeological treasures, causing phenomenal damage to sites. These artefacts have flooded international markets,” the letter states. “The UN Security Council banned the trade in Iraqi artefacts in 2003 and it needs to do the same for Syria now. [This] will help to strip these antiquities of much of their financial value and disincentivise the looting.”
Back in London, Roth says that he hopes his proposed alliance of museums will focus not just on Syria but on any part of the world where there is conflict. “Wherever there is a crisis, there is looted art. There is an urgent need to create more awareness of the issue in areas where there are upheavals, revolutions and political turmoil,” he says. In his previous position as the director of the Dresden State Art Collections and the head of the German Museums Association, Roth says he spent “a huge amount of time and money” dealing with the issue of art looted by the Nazis and the Soviets during the Second World War. “We need to learn from what happened during and after the war,” he says. “[Museums] tend to focus on the past and we don’t talk very much about strategies for the future. We need to do that now.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'V&A fights back against Islamic State'