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Where Do ISIS-Looted Antiquities Go?

Probably someone’s basement. For a long time.

Some of the Syrian "cultural objects at risk," according to the International Council of Museums' Red List.

The militant jihadist group known as the Islamic State is making millions selling antiquities looted in Syria.

The problem has gotten so bad that, this month, the United Nations warned that the Islamic State is destroying and looting ancient cultural heritage "on an industrial scale." A few weeks ago, the FBI sent memos to museums and antiquities dealers around the country requesting help with "halting trade in looted and stolen artifacts from Syria and Iraq."


These dire reminders make it seem like ISIS-looted artifacts will be streaming into auction houses or your local antique shop any day now. However, experts know from past experiences ranging from the Khmer Rouge to Nazi Germany that the treasures could take decades to resurface from the massive international black market, if at all.

"It's exceedingly too early for these conflict antiquities to be getting much public-facing time in the major auction houses," says Lynda Albertson, head of the Association for Research in Crimes against Art, or ARCA.

"Not enough time has passed to sufficiently launder them to where they could possibly be passed off at a Christie's or other large auction firm."

"It is my belief that the Western art market will make far more money off the sale and resale of illicit antiquities than any of its armed traffickers ever do."

The supply chain for looted artifacts can be complicated and varied. After the items are dug up, smugglers get them out of the country and into the hands of private buyers, antiques dealers and collectors who may or may not know or care about their true origin.

Traffickers shift their routes and methods quickly to avoid detection as law enforcement evolves, Albertson said. The articles travel the world in car trunks, pockets, shipping containers, and other kinds of transport used to move black markets goods. Often this includes mislabeling, bribery, fake documents, and other methods that can be used to get the cargo out of the conflict country.


Almost all countries have rules dictating what types of artifacts can legally leave, but sometimes the paperwork can be easily falsified. Moreover, even when smugglers are caught, their punishments are relatively lenient. And though some lawmakers have called for stricter regulations, trafficking still seems a worthwhile risk, even for people not under the thumb of ISIS.

"Collectors and dealers know that it is an almost impossible task for law enforcement investigators to prove that something freshly dug out of the ground, with no prior collection history, or record of existence, has been acquired by illegal or destructive means," said Lynda. "That's what makes buying 'fresh' so appealing."

These dealers get their hands on the artifacts while they're still "hot," with plans to sell them once public attention has moved on. By then, items can leak into the so-called "licit markets."

In Cambodia during the fight between government forces and the Khmer Rouge, thousands of articles were looted from the country's historic sites. Between 1998 and 2005 roughly 348 Khmer artifacts were sold at Sotheby's auction house in New York for prices up to $27,000, according to a report from Tess Davis, an affiliate researcher in the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, who spent years researching the widespread illicit trade.

"It is my belief that the Western art market will make far more money off the sale and resale of illicit antiquities than any of its armed traffickers ever do," Albertson said.

To help fight the problem, organizations such as the International Council of Museums Create "red lists" of antiquities that museums and dealers should watch out for. A list for Cambodia was created in 2009, and there are others for Egypt, Haiti, Colombia, China, Central America and Mexico, Peru and Afghanistan. An "emergency" list for Syria was created in 2013.

"Museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors are encouraged not to acquire such objects without having carefully and thoroughly researched their origin and all the relevant legal documentation," the list warns.

And while the list is helpful, it may not be useful for the next few years or even decades, as these artifacts remain lost deep in black markets, where even the best archaeologists won't be able to dig them up.