An essay on the faults of the antiquities trade…

I wrote this essay as an assignment for a current University module I am taking and received an unexpectedly good mark. It was an incredibly interesting and insightful moral debate about the nature of the global antiquates trade. I used my previous knowledge about the looting of artefacts from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and looked at the impact of the illicit trade of cultural property on modern conflict.

I would be incredibly interested in your views on the topic and having read my argument agree the the UK should employ laws, similar to that of the ivory trade, and strictly regulate the trading of antiquities.

Many collectors, and some museums, would claim that no harm is done in the trading of antiquities, and that the antiquities trade even serves to rescue and preserve ancient objects. Are they right?  

With such a diverse population of participant across the globe, the antiquities trade is one of such complexity that it is difficult to regulate. The protection of cultural heritage is one that spans all archaeological fields and has become an issue of national and international concern. Popular culture often depicts the industry as a major resource for traffickers and criminal organisations seeking to profit from the selling of questionably acquired material culture. Is this depiction accurate? UNESCO has approximately estimated the annual worth of the antiquities trade to be US$2.2 billion (UNESCO. 2005; 37); however, the proportion of revenue created by illicit trade is uncountable, yet we know it exists (Campbell, P. 2013; 113,114).  Demand for material artefacts in wealthy countries has led to the development of a transnational cultural trade, with materials exported from economically depressed countries (Campbell, P. 2013; 114), some of this trade is handled by criminal networks often connected to militarist regimes.

The Illicit trade of antiquities is a major resource for criminals and illegitimate organisations, ranked alongside narcotics as one of the most trafficked commodities in the world (Calvani, S. 2008; 29) (Campbell, P. 2013; 113).  If antiquities are traded through proper and legal means, with documented discovery and a recognised origin, then the trade is acceptable.  Certainly, the movement of artefacts between collections (either private or public) helps to create more complete accounts of culture from across the world. The market primarily targets private collectors whose role in the preservation of materials is crucial; public or charity funding cannot hope to preserve all cultural material that it encounters thus private collections have rescued from storeroom decay.

However, within the last century we can see the increased manipulation of antiquities, as lucrative materials harvested from war torn countries and stolen away to more profitable markets abroad. Artefacts may well be ‘rescued’ from these areas and gained access to preservation through their movement into the antiquities markets of Europe and North America. Yet, the financial and human implications of such ‘rescue’ is immeasurable. The true test of the antiquities trade morality is in its attitude towards materials repossessed from areas of conflict and those who wish to profit because of it.

The profitable nature of the antiquities trade has particularity endangered valuable material culture in archaeological sites in today’s areas of conflict. The monetary value of artefacts on both online auction site (see figure 1) and through established auction houses (e.g. Christies) has attracted those who seek to profit from conquest and war.  Materials from Syria have been particularity at risk within the last decade; the head of UNESCO Irian Bokova remarked that “Illegal excavations and mass looting [were] taking place on industrial scale” across Syria (Bokava, I. 2015).


Figure 1 A Syrian coin from ~500BC listed for sale on eBay. The timing of the listing and provenance of the coin suggest it may have been looted by ISIS. No explanation for its discovery or historical context were given within the description.

Sites within Syria had been targets of ISIS’s campaign since their rise in 2012, both as places to destroy for an ideological cause and as locations to loot for profit. Charts found during raids show that the Islamic State had issued and dispatched investigative groups with the aim of identifying places “that are anticipated to have precious things” (Taub, B. 2015). Capitalising on the illegal trade of antiquities, a twenty-per-cent tax has been reportedly imposed on artefacts discovered by civilians (Taub, B. 2015) (Shabi, R. 2015). The bureaucratic department responsible for the dealing of valuable antiquities is called “Diwan al-Rikaz” – translated as the “Department of precious Things that Come Out of the ground”; this department also manages oil supplies within ISIS’s control (Taub, B. 2015). Some media outlets have reported the pillaging of cultural heritage sites their “second-largest source of revenue” after oil; making the ‘Diwan al-Rikaz’ the most profitable section of ISIS (Shabi, R.2015). This is the institutionalising of looting; a simply revenue raising enterprise.

In this instance the purchasing of these artefacts directly funds terrorism and insurgency within the Middle East an across the world.  The human cost in trading these goods is innumerable but distressing to consider. At what price do collectors and museums pay to save and preserve artefacts that are found and traded through terrorist organisations? Yes, these artefacts are being rescued from an unstable geo-political area and brought into secure locations where there is funding and expertise to preserve them. However, it is this funding that leads to their looting in the first place. Talking about looted Syrian artefacts appearing in the British antiquities market, Neil Brodie of the Scottish centre for Crime and Justice research (SCCJR) commented that “If no one way buying, people wouldn’t dig it up. This material sells.” (Shabi, R. 2015). ISIS are only able to produce such revenue from this illicit trade because the western world have created a market for it.

The BBC undertook investigative work in 2014/15 to decipher through what mechanisms these artefacts found their way onto European markets. What they discovered was that “Turkish merchants sell it to dealers in Europe. They call them, send pictures … people from Europe come to check the goods and take them away.” (Cox, S. 2015).  Their source, a Turkish ‘go-between’ claimed to have sold pieces of values up to £1.1 million; with ISIS taking a 20% cut and many thousand payed to smugglers to get it both out of Syria and into Europe (Cox, S. 2015). What the BBC uncovered was a well-run, lucrative, illicit trade “with offices and business cards”, that sold artefacts from militant occupied areas, not only from Syria but Iraq and Lebanon (Cox, S.2015).

The line between legitimate legal traders and those handling illicit objects has become ever more blurred in recent years and is well reported upon. Dr Mark Altaweel of UCL’s institute of Archaeology was tasked by The Guardian newspaper to investigate ‘blood antiques’ for sale and found an array of artefacts (Shabi, R. 2015). Altaweel discovered artefacts and facades from the ruins of Palmyra and Nimrud in some of London’s most reputable and upmarket dealers, who even tried to conceal the area and period artefacts originated (Shabi, R. 2015). This trade and practice does impact European markets but occurs throughout the western world.  America in their fight against ISIS have been particularity keen to prevent the trafficking of antiques to its borders, with limited success, however maintain a hard line within the state department (Taub, B. 2015).

The argument that without their looting some artefacts may never have been discovered, or even that their value in foreign markets protects them against destruction, contains major flaw. The loss of context and provenance diminishes the archaeological value of these transportable pieces of material culture. This is particularity easy to achieve by selling through online sites where certification and description is minimum if included at all (see figure1). In some reports artefacts may even had been purposefully broken to conceal its original location, thus loosing almost all historical context.

Syria is only one example where the archaeological material of a country, under immense economic hardship or political turmoil, has been looted for the profit of terrorist organisations. They often follow the same pattern of trade moving between looter, smuggler, dealer and collector across multiple national borders (see figure 2.) (Campbell, P. 2013; 116).  Afghanistan remains to this day a major victim of the illicit trade of antiquities (ICOM.2006). With law enforcement unable to protect known archaeological sites artefacts have been recorded smuggled across the boarder to Pakistan, following similar routes as other illicit trafficking; such as human, narcotics and weaponry (Campbell, P. 2013; 121). From Pakistan antiquities are flown across the world, however the lack of regulations and enforcement in the UAE has seen the region become the primary transit of illegally required artefacts before their movement to the European market (Al Serkel, M. 2008) (Cox, S. 2015) (Campbell, P. 2013; 120,121).  The 2009 documentary ‘Blood antiquities’ roused media and public attention, documenting how dealers sold trafficked Afghan antiquities to Belgian galleries (Campbell, P. 2013; 121). This further fuelled the image of the antiquities trade as one riddle in illegality.


Figure 2. The four stages observed within antiquities trafficking. It illustrates how both profit and specialised knowledge increase through each stage. (Campbell, P. 2013; 116)

Within the same 2015 speech Irian Bokova called for the return of cultural objects “so that the art market is no longer a tacit accomplice to the looting of culture” (Bokova, I. 2015). Perhaps the true test of the antiquities trade is in it’s honesty. A store of Syrian antiquities, seized by authorities and saved from being traded illicitly, is being kept within Beirut National Museum (Cox, S. 2015).  Preventing these antiquities from getting to the market it prevents the funding of criminal organisations and terrorism. Some have suggested that private initiatives and the labelling of ‘blood antiquities’ should be carried out in a similar fashion to the diamond trade to prevent the unknowing purchase of potentially trafficked antiquities (Vlasic, M. Turku, H. 2016). The aim would be, as Vernon Rapley the ex-chief of the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiquities squad states, to make the purchase of these antiquities “socially repugnant and unacceptable” (quote of in, Cox, S. 2015). Thus, incapacitating the markets for such goods.

However, what we can witness instead is an increased demand for antiquities from politically volatile areas.  Despite landmark legislation such as the 1970 UNESCO convention against the illicit trafficking of cultural property (UNESCO, 1970) from 1990 onwards researchers have marked an increase in cultural material from areas of conflict in the near East reaching British markets (Brodie, N. 2006). The impact of the Iraqi conflict on the archaeological material was unlike that of any conflict that proceeded. London auction houses, such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s (see figures 3 and 4), saw an exponential in artefacts from the Iraq region during the 1990’s – a time of immense political unrest and civil war in the region (Brodie, N. 2006). During this time there was also greater concern and distrust over the provenance of antiquities brought to market (see figures 3 and 4).


Figure 3. Graph showing the number of cylinder seals, from the Iraqi region, offered for sale annually at London at Sotheby’s (1980-96) and Bonham’s (1999-20040 excluding single-owner sales. (## – no data available). (Brodie, 2006: 216)


Figure 4. Graph showing the number of cylinder seals, from the Iraqi region, for sale annually in London at Christie’s (1981-2004) excluding single-owner sales. (Brodie, 2006:216)

Many artefacts from looted museums and private collections found their way into collections and museums across the globe with art dealers simply disregarding all ethical codes (Brodie, N. 2006: 222). The illicit trafficking of such valuable cultural material from areas of conflict is a growing phenomenon but not exclusive to areas of unrest. The stealing of art, and particularly ancient antiquities is a phenomenon that occurs across the world. taken either out of the ground from the looting of archaeological sites or robbed from a secure location by an organised crime network it is often hard to distinguish if an artefact is ‘clean’: that is to say it is not a ‘blood antiquity’.  It is this disregard for ethics that can make the trade of antiquities as harmful as the trade in narcotics.

With the theft of these artefacts, so the identity of the people they are associated with are stolen.  Artefacts may be ‘rescued’ and preserved but they are sold by those with no right to claim them as theirs to sell. The basis of the trade is rooted in colonialism were the country of origin lost all rights over its own culture whilst its materials were distributed across the western world. The collections of many a Victorian gentleman can be attributed to the establishment of the antiquities trade London and the pillaging of Britain’s empirical states.

Perhaps the antiquities trade is how the public imagination views it, riddled with theft, deceit and murder. Certainly, most artefacts are traded within national and universal regulations with a certified and legitimate provenance and found through scientific archaeological or anthropological processes.  In these instances, I would agree that no harm is done in their trading and through their purchasing an opportunity to preserve then is gained.  However, it is in the illicit exchanges of cultural property that I find fault in the system and structure of the antiquities trade. The scale and organization of crime within the industry is unfathomable and lives up the depictions presented in television and film. The ‘black market’ does not appear to be at-all disconnect to the legitimate markets and trafficked material has regularly passed through the hand of even the most reputable auction houses in London.  This assessment has focused on the pillaging of the Near East however it is a worldwide phenomenon with artefacts from pillaged sites from Peru to Romania appearing in apparently legitimate dealerships.

The scale of such crime and at such cost is upsetting to consider; it is certainly not correct to state that this trade causes no harm. At what cost are ancient object ‘rescued’.  Without the demand for such artefacts thousands of artefacts would remain in-situ so could be better studied and understood.


Al Serkel, M. (2008). “Smuggled Antiquities Worth $6M Seized,” GulfNews,, [Online] available at: (accessed 8 January 2011).

Bokova, I. (2015). Address by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO on the occasion of the Conference “Fighting the Looting of Syria’s Cultural Heritage”. Sofia, Bulgaria.

Calvani, S., (2008). “Frequency and figures of organised crime in art and antiquities”. In ISPAC International Conference Proceedings (Vol. 12, pp. 263-291).

Campbell, P. (2013). “The Illicit Antiquities Trade as a transnational Criminal network: Characterizing and Anticipating trafficking of cultural heritage”. International Journal of Cultural Property (Vol.20, pp. 113-153).

Cox, S. (2015). “The men who smuggle the loot that funds IS”. BBC News magazine. [online] Available at: [accessed 13 Mar. 2018].

ICOM. (2006). “Red List of Afghanistan Antiquities at Risk”, International Council of Museums publication, [online] available at:

Mark V. Vlasic, Helga Turku. (2016) “‘Blood Antiquities’: Protecting Cultural Heritage beyond Criminalization”, Journal of International Criminal Justice (Vol. 14; 5, p.p 1175–1197).

Shabi, R. (2015). “Looted in Syria – and sold in London: the British antiques shops dealing in artefacts smuggled by Isis”. The Guardian. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].

Taub, B. (2015). “The real value of The ISIS antiquities trade”. The New Yorker, 4. [online] Available at: [accessed 13 Mar. 18]

UNESCO. (1970). “Convention on the Means of prohibiting and preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural property”, Adopted by the General Conference at Its Sixteenth Session, Paris, 14 November 1970. UNESCO.

Brodie, N. and Tubb, K.W., (2003). Illicit antiquities: the theft of culture and the extinction of archaeology. Routledge.

Brodie, N. and Renfrew, C., (2005). “Looting and the world’s archaeological heritage: the inadequate response”. Annu. Rev. Anthropol., (Vol. 34, pp.343-361.)

Brodie, N., Kersel, M.M., Luke, C. and Walker Tubb, K., (2006). Archaeology, cultural heritage, and the antiquities trade. University Press of Florida. pp. 206-226.

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