According to a curator of the British Museum, the denunciation of the illegal trade in antiques from Iraq and Syria gives a false impression that the European market is flooded with looted objects.
St John Simpson, chief curator and archaeologist in the Middle East department of the British Museum, said a recent report claiming that more than 98% of the items in some European markets had no proven legal provenance and, in some cases, could be linked to terrorist organizations was misleading.
“There is a very strong tendency to say that all the objects without provenance are the product of recent looting,” he said. “But some objects have been around for decades, if not more. It’s about assessing each item individually. “
Simpson said that in his role as a UK law enforcement adviser on seized goods leaving or entering the country, there has not yet been any proven case of an object recently looted from Syria discovered in Great Britain.
He said: “I think the most revealing statistic is that in the past eight years of the Syrian civil war, we have not yet proven that objects have entered Britain that have clearly come from looting in Syria “, did he declare. “We are currently investigating cases, but this is a remarkable figure.”
In March, a UN-supported report said that Germany has become an international destination for the trafficking of illegal antiquities from the eastern Mediterranean, including Iraq and Syria, with almost half of 6000 articles reviewed from both countries.
Published by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the study examined the sale of antiques in Germany between 2015 and 2018 and found that only 2.1% had proven legal provenance.
Markus Hilgert, secretary general of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, said the report’s conclusions were shocking, especially in light of the EU trade restrictions in place for Iraq and Syria. “Given the extensive and continuous destruction and looting of archaeological cultural property in Iraq and Syria, this is an alarming finding,” added Hilgert.
Simpson said that in Syria there had been “punctual and opportunistic looting”, but the picture painted by the study by the German Federal Cultural Foundation amounted to “rather simplistic” reports. “In other words,” he said. “I would like each of these objects to be personally convinced that they come from recent looting rather than from older objects or counterfeits.”
The conservative said the situation in the UK was completely different from that of the 1990s when a large number of looted Iraqi items were sold. He called for “prudence and curatorial intelligence” to be used to decide when and where the articles originated. “Some of these items floating on the Western market may not in fact come from recent looting, they probably come from looting in the 1990s or 2003,” he added.
The British Museum recently launched the Circulating Artefacts project, “to combat looting and the trafficking of cultural objects”. He created a database of objects designed to help curb the trade in illicit objects from Sudan and Egypt.
But he was also criticized for objects in his collection that were acquired by looting, such as the Benin bronzes, which were taken in a “punitive expedition” led by British troops in 1897.
Senegalese academic Felwine Sarr is co-author of a report recommending a restitution program to transfer hundreds of articles from European institutions to Africa. He criticized the British Museum for acting like “an ostrich with its head in the sand” after failing to respond to requests for the return of objects acquired by looting from the colonial era.
In response, a spokesperson for the British Museum said he welcomed a “transparent focus on the provenance of the objects,” adding that the museum agreed with the report’s call for the establishment of ” new and more equitable relations between Europe and Africa “.