The Murky World of Antiquities’ Trade: Is the Middle East in Danger?


Illegal trade in antiquities is an age old concept – from looting and plundering of kingdoms in ancient times to grave robbing in the cemetery next door, the lure of unethically obtaining treasures has transcended centuries.

The recent return of an 11th century bronze idol (identified as stolen from India) by the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore has put the spotlight back on the underworld of antiquities’ trade. Subhash Kapoor, the owner of a private art gallery ‘Art of the Past’ in the USA, was arrested in 2011 for smuggling artefacts worth more than $100 million out of South and Southeast Asia and selling them to museums around the world. The most controversial of these was the dancing Shiva or Nataraja sold to the National Gallery of Australia, which was handed over in September this year by Tony Abbott to Modi as a sign of goodwill. Many antiquities still lie in the museum, but officials defend this saying the objects were not stolen from India.

This incident is just one example of a prevailing dangerous trend, with smugglers at its helm growing more daring day by day. One region that is screaming for help today is the Middle East, urging us to look hard and acknowledge the alarming state of antiquities there. In an increasingly radical Islamic region, countries are now scrambling to save their cultural identities, while developed countries are apprehensively holding on to artefacts, due to the violence and sheer hostility towards preservation of artefacts in the Middle East.

The question now arises as to whether artefacts originating in a country should be returned to ensure preservation of its cultural identity, irrespective of dangers posed by conflict in the region.

Important pieces of the archaeological heritage of these countries lie distributed across the world today. Most of the remains of the Babylonian Ishtar Gate, constructed by King Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BCE, were transferred after World War I to Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Lions, bulls and dragons that adorned the gate are now scattered across the world in the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the likes. The legendary Rosetta Stone, which holds the key to unraveling the mysteries of ancient Egypt by deciphering the hieroglyphs, was discovered initially by Napoleon’s army, and later taken by the British as part of the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801. It was transferred in the 19th century to the British Museum, where it now lies.

Most artefacts in question for repatriation (returning to the country of origin) from western developed countries have been acquired during wars, by armies or by colonial governments, and subsequently retained. This retention hasn’t been questioned till recently, as developing countries have only now started becoming aware of the importance of a cultural identity and its projection in gaining political vantage internationally as well as boosting internal tourism.

The Louvre is home to ancient Egyptian Fresco pieces, apparently stolen from Egypt. For a region that has been rife with political, economic and social instability ever since the Arab spring, and that has always been heavily dependent on revenues generated from tourism, it is clear why the country puts reclamation of antiquities and artefacts at the top of its list of priorities. The propagation of the image of a country that was home to an enormously rich civilization, though admittedly thousands of years ago, is necessary to counterbalance the picture of chaos and violence that drives away even the hardiest tourist. The fact that important artefacts, which are integral to and characteristic of the Egyptian civilization, can be viewed in other countries that are more accessible, only deters tourists from coming and experiencing the rich heritage of Egypt.


From a fatwa being issued by a preacher on the sale of antiquities (saying that a person has absolute ownership rights over artefacts found on private land, but should rebury those found on public lands), to calls from religious leaders to destroy the Sphinx and all symbols of religious or idolatry worship, two things make evident the hostility towards antiquities here.

One, Salafi and Islamist radicals in the region seek to propagate the idea that artefacts are owned by those in control of them (the ‘finders-keepers’ logic) and that the owner can destroy what he has rights over, which goes against how protectors of artefacts approach this issue – calling for preservation and safe-keeping of antiquities by all. The latter say these are components of universal heritage, and that the entire world should not only share in the benefits afforded by these, but also partake in the responsibilities to ensure their survival.

Two, the growing Islamic fanaticism and violence in the region post the Arab spring, with insurgent groups cropping up and the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movement splintering into factions due to weak leadership, has resulted in chaotic elements causing destruction, intentionally and unintentionally, to many monuments and artefacts. Radical Islamists seeking to tear down objects and idols have been attacking cultural objects, clubbing them under the category of religious idols, in order to spread Islamism throughout the region by living up to the ban of idol worship (explicitly stated in the Quran). Since 2011, looters have been stealing artefacts from museums through ceilings, taking away treasures from sites that have been marked for excavation, and rioters supporting the Brotherhood have been entering and vandalizing museums.

These two issues make the concern over safety of antiquities in conflict-rife regions completely legitimate. This concern has brought to the forefront the question as to whether these antiquities would be safer in conflict-free countries – at least those free from surrounding violence. Does this, if not legitimize, ethically justify the decisions of museums, in say USA or England, to refuse to return antiquities to countries such as Syria, Iraq and Egypt citing safety reasons? By extension would it be borderline ethical, or ‘for the greater good’, to smuggle artefacts out of regions that could possibly see destruction of them in the near future, due to prevalence of violence? Further, seeing as this is based on the premise that safety and survival of artefacts cannot be ensured in such regions, some can even argue that well-developed countries can and should take care of artefacts for regions that don’t have the funds to preserve them satisfactorily.

If well-off countries can adopt the sly justification of ‘smuggling to preserve’, private collectors too can hide under this banner. However in the former case, state run museums mostly maintain paperwork, though many times fabricated, whereas when artefacts fall into private hands, such as those of Subhash Kapoor, they often disappear behind locked doors and are not seen or heard of again. They are not present on paper and not accounted for in any way. Many times, they are sold after a waiting period to museums, and provenance is fabricated and used as superficial reassurance about the legality of the sales.

A case in point is the smuggling of antiquities out of Iraq and Syria by the ISIS, in return for cash that buys the arms and ammunition required by the same. Many times, stolen antiquities are used to pay religious tax to the ISIS, known as ‘khum’. Also known as ‘blood antiquities’ (as this smuggling funds warfare in the region), they are shipped mainly to London where they are sold in small artefact shops frequented by tourists. Buyers are told the objects are from Jordan, Kuwait, etc., (believable neighbouring countries that the objects could have come from) so as to not spike suspicion, and provenance is issued without any fuss. Further probing regarding their origins results in evasive answers, which private collectors decode as meaning to have come from Syria or Iraq. Thus, they have now discovered ways to ‘legally’ acquire priceless antiquities, without undertaking any risk by stepping out of their country.


Illegal trade in this region is no new phenomenon. Antiquities have been smuggled out of Iraq since the Saddam Hussein period, to the USA and UK. Operation Lost Treasure saw the US authorities return 60 plus antiquities (smuggled out of the country during the Saddam Hussein period or by ISIS lately) back to Iraq, with the statement that they belonged to the people of Iraq and were not to be owned by any private collectors, and that greed shouldn’t be allowed to affect the culture of a nation.

The UNESCO Convention of the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970, provides protection against illicit trade of antiquities in countries that are parties to it. It speaks of the importance of cultural heritage (artefacts, literary texts, paintings, etc.) to a country, and how the loss of it would detrimentally affect its image and identity. This, of course, doesn’t bar a mutually agreed exchange by countries, or legal purchase or gifting of artefacts by countries. The International Code of Ethics for Museums (ICOM), 1986, lays down guidelines for museums to abide by when dealing with other museums, countries as well as private owners. In this way countries do enjoy some protection internationally with regards to their ownership rights, ensuring even underdeveloped countries have some control over their archaeological heritage.

Even if we don’t consider the originating country’s ownership rights, accumulation of artefacts from all over the world in few museums in well-developed countries poses a new problem of oligopoly in the art and tourism world. A few ‘universal’ museums cropping up with artefacts from around the world, like the Louvre and the British Museum, would negate incentive to visit underdeveloped or conflict prone countries that may have been rich in archaeological heritage, if not for these museums. This would only heighten the financial crises these countries face by depriving them of revenues from tourism (admittedly less tourism than normal due to conflict). Of late, there have been cases of restitution (return of illegally obtained artefacts) by developed countries to avoid legal consequences as well as moral judgment internationally.

However, one problem we must acknowledge even if restitution or repatriation occurs is dispersal of artefacts to different countries around the world, which would diminish the impact of displays. This would mean that history in entirety would be hard to grasp due to the splitting up of artefacts across museums. Given that repatriation is important for a country’s cultural identity, and that artefacts should be returned if the original country so demands, we have to realize that taking a decision in favour of the artefact’s safety versus recognising the state’s rightful ownership are conflicting. Acknowledging the danger that artefacts face in conflict- rife countries, retention by well off countries (for whatever selfish reasons) would probably be more beneficial for the artefacts’ preservation. However, allowing countries to refuse repatriation on these grounds would allow arbitrariness to prevail in the antiquities world, and open a new can of worms. Countries could well illegally acquire prized artefacts to adorn their museums and refuse to send them back citing preservation of archaeological heritage and the originating country’s incapability to do so. In other words, the power to decide the future of antiquities from around the world would lie with a few countries, heading for an atmosphere of clear archaeological oligopoly.


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