The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) destroys Christian and Muslim shrines and tombs because of idolatry. However, the jihadists know the value of items and manage to sell them to Western antique collectors.
Antique sales pushed the group’s accounts from under $1,000 to billions. These militants control around 4,500 archeological sites. In al-Nabuk, they stole antiques over 8,000 years old, which netted $36 million for the jihadists. Residents and gangs are allowed to loot the shrines, but they must give 20% to 50% of their profits to the Islamic State.
“There is no doubt that looting and illicit trade in antiquities is highly lucrative, enough for ISIS to be deeply engaged and implicated in it,” said Shawnee State University Professor Amr Al-Azm. “Stopping this illicit trade in antiquities, therefore, must be an imperative, not only because it is a major source of income for terrorist organizations like ISIS, but also because it is causing irreparable damage to Syria’s cultural heritage.”
Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ) wants legislation to curb “the sale of stolen antiquities from conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq.” Blood antiquities from around the world do land in America, even at well-respected auctions by Christie’s. In 2009, Christie’s sold a statue from Cambodia to an anonymous buyer, but bought it back in 2014 when they were told it was looted from a temple in the 1970s.
German antique collectors are also drawn to these sales. Illegal antiques “[rank] third in global organized crime.” Munich is one of the major cities within this web, along with Brussels and London. Michael Müller-Karpe, forensic archeologist at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum, said action should not be delayed, even if a country does not report an artifact missing.
“Even if Syria, Turkey or Iraq can’t demand the return of certain objects because they can’t prove that they were found on their territories, it’s evident that the artifacts must be of illegal origin,” said Müller-Karpe. “In that case, they should actually be seized and confiscated, because this amounts to handling stolen goods.”
But the Middle East antique ring expands farther than the Islamic State. The Syrian rebels sell valuable antiques to fund their fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In 2013, conservationists said the rebels control the majority of Syria’s archeological areas. The leaders said they must sell the antiques in order to fight. Some pieces sell for $50,000.