After 10 months of ruling over the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) forces were finally removed in March of this year. The joy of this victory was overshadowed by the harrowing destruction of the Temple of Bel, which was a part of this UNESCO World Heritage site in the Syrian Desert. The group claimed they proceeded to blow up the ancient ruins to prevent idolatry and paganism. Yet, it is widely believed that they looted antiquities, in order to fund their operations across the Middle East.
According to Western intelligence officials, looting of antiquities is ISIS’ second largest source of income, only surpassed by sales of oil. Problematically enough, the large majority of the antiquities end up in private collections of wealthy European or American buyers, who, in turn, become sources of financial support for instability in the area, and, arguably, for a war on the Western world.
The black market in art consists of one of the most lucrative, yet unregulated, markets in the world: one in which billions of dollars’ worth of art are stolen every year, according to estimates by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This activity is attractive to criminals, mainly because valuable pieces of art worth millions of dollars are relatively easy to remove from museums or homes. It is also a crime where there are no victims, unless we consider the public or the private owner. Evidently, raising awareness of art theft would be a good starting point in addressing the risk of such practice to the historical and cultural heritage.
In order to track stolen pieces of art, particular measures are taken, such as the creation of worldwide databases. Among these, London-based Art Loss Register is the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art, antiques, and collectables. Its owner, Mr. Julian Radcliffe, ensures that his organization contributes to police work, by not charging them the use of the database, and helps to train the FBI’s Art Crime Team.
However, the Art Loss Register also demands the payment of fees in order to divulge information related to stolen artworks. This was the case of a stolen Alfred Sisley painting at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orleans, France. Art Loss Register required the museum to pay an unaffordable fee, and, as a consequence, the painting was never retrieved.
Another way to prevent art theft is to publish lists of cultural artefacts at risk. This has been implemented by the International Council of Museums, which prepared lists of items that must not be purchased by museums or art collectors.
Regardless of how it occurs, the loss of art and antiquities does not only affect tourism industries, or renowned museums. It represents the loss of heritage and cultural production, which knows neither limits nor borders, and this is why a higher level of transparency of all economic transactions in the art world is essential.
Words: Astrid Scheuermann
Images source: Reuters/MailOnline/Christie's
Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu