US Art Market Urges Further Government Protection of Iraqi, Syrian Antiquities

Over the past several years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has damaged and destroyed some of the greatest ancient sites in the world, including a Baalshamin temple in Palmyra, Syria. As Homeland Security Today previously reported, in the wake of this destruction, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned US art collectors and dealers that artifacts plundered by ISIS had entered the US marketplace.

In response, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) launched an investigation into US government efforts to protect cultural antiquities. Twenty-six art market experts interviewed by GAO recommended several ways the federal government could curb the sale of plundered artifacts, which are often used to finance terrorist activities.

“The UN has reported that ISIS and other individuals have generated income from the looting and smuggling of cultural property from archaeological sites and museums in Iraq and Syria. This income may be used to support terrorist organizations in planning and carrying out attacks,” said GAO.

Although many of the interviewed art market dealers had not seen any illegally obtained Iraqi and Syrian artifacts, they indicated that media attention may be deterring their sale in the United Sales. However, others indicated that they had seen items for sale on the Internet and in galleries, and that suspicious items were likely to remain on the Internet and the illicit market.

The United States has implemented several restrictions on stolen cultural property. For example, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), signed into law in the United States in 1983, restricts the importation of certain stolen cultural property from Iraq and Syria. In addition to CPIA, just months ago the United States enacted the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act requiring the President to restrict the importation of Syrian “archaeological and ethnological material.”

Several federal agencies are involved in the protection of cultural property including the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, and Defense (DOD), as well as the Smithsonian Institution. GAO says US agencies and the Smithsonian have worked in five areas to protect cultural property: “awareness raising, information sharing, law enforcement efforts, overseas capacity building, and preventing destruction.”

To improve upon current government efforts to curb the sale of plundered cultural property, the art experts recommended improving information sharing among US agencies, collaboration with foreign countries, training of law enforcement officers, US Customs and Border Protection guidance on importing cultural property, and providing further support for and work with the private sector and foreign countries to improve the management of foreign countries’ cultural property data, such as museum inventories.

In addition, the experts articulated the need for an overarching strategy to define US priorities regarding cultural property protection. This suggestion received mixed reviews from agency officials. For example, the FBI said they already have “clearly defined roles and priorities,” and State officials said art market dealers are unlikely to be fully aware of the extent of their information sharing efforts.

Officials at the Executive Office for US Attorneys noted, however, that some agencies have overlapping roles and information sharing could be improved upon. On the other hand, State officials explained to GAO that overlapping roles are not necessarily problematic.

GAO made no recommendations in their report.

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