PARIS (Reuters) - Off a corridor at world culture agency UNESCO’s star-shaped Paris headquarters, a modest office with potted plants and three small desks has become the war room in the fight against looted antiquities from Iraq and Syria.
“UNESCO has no blue helmets,” its deputy heritage director Mechtild Rossler told Reuters, using the common jargon for United Nations’ peacekeepers.
“We work with three people... So what do you want us to do?”
Islamic State’s pillaging of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, video of museum statues and carvings destroyed in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and now the seizure of the Syrian heritage site of Palmyra have underscored the world’s impotence at saving some of its most precious archaeological treasures.
With major powers not willing to put troops on the ground, Islamic State fighters have extended the reach of their fundamentalist caliphate against depleted and demoralised government forces in both Syria and Iraq.
The world’s failure to stem daily killings, atrocities and mounting humanitarian crises in the two countries understandably gets most attention.
But its inability to safeguard heritage sites from an array of threats is also storing up trouble, as much-needed future livelihoods based on tourism are ruined and potentially lucrative sources of funding for Islamist insurgents created.
The fear that the trade in looted artefacts can aggravate the conflicts has earned them the nickname “blood antiquities” - adapting the “blood diamond” tag coined for the gems that have financed fighters in African wars from Angola to Sierra Leone.
“The situation in Syria and Iraq is unprecedented,” said Rossler, whose career has spanned the 1993 destruction of Bosnia’s Ottoman-era Mostar bridge by Croatian forces and the Taliban dynamiting of Afghanistan’s Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.
Yet if the world has had ample experience of assaults on cultural sites, the quest for a counter-strategy is uphill.
UNESCO, headed by polyglot Bulgarian ex-foreign minister Irina Bokova, has led world calls for a halt to the destruction. But its own resources are limited, not least because of the U.S. decision in 2011 to cut off funding of the body after other members backed a Palestinian bid for full membership.
No fewer than six international conventions have been drawn up over the years to protect cultural heritage. Alarm bells have been sounded in U.N. Security Council resolutions and in declarations by heads of state, top museums and the art world.
But, despite some successes in recovering objects, the effort is hamstrung by the patchwork approach of national authorities, a failure to tackle smuggling networks head-on and a lack of even basic information about the market they trade in.
“When a crisis like this erupts, we feel the need to act. But we don’t know what to do,” said Jason Felch, co-author of the book “Chasing Aphrodite” that reported on how looted antiquities can end up in the hands of the world’s museums.
Syria’s famed archaeological sites have suffered extensive damage during four years of conflict, with gems such as the old souk in Aleppo devastated by the fighting. But as the civil war has ground on, the threat of plunder has risen to the fore.
In late-2014, media around the world leapt on the assertion by a U.S.-funded archaeologist that antiquities-trafficking had become IS’s second largest source of revenue after oil sales. Some even estimated the take ran into billions of dollars.
At around the same time, satellite images published by the U.S. government and others showed heritage sites such as Syria’s 3rd century BC Dura-Europos city increasingly pockmarked by crude excavation pits over a period from mid-2012 to early 2014.
Some experts believe the worst of the looting took place when the site was under the control of the Western- and Arab-backed Free Syrian Army, suggesting the problem is rampant and afflicting many sites regardless of which faction is in charge.
While those images are still widely accepted as evidence that theft is taking place on a huge scale, doubts have since emerged about the methodology and data basis of estimates of the amount of proceeds that have flown to IS or other groups.
“We still need to figure out the market itself,” Richard Stengel, U.S. Department of State Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, acknowledged at a conference held at Paris’s Louvre museum this month.
UNESCO is similarly circumspect. Rossler puts the revenue yield to IS in the “high millions” of dollars, but said her organisation did not have an official estimate.
Black markets in any goods are notoriously difficult to quantify and ultimately the debate may yet prove moot: the very fact looting is taking place on IS-controlled sites suggests the group is confident it will one day derive revenue from them.
Yet the episode reveals the continued lack of institutional knowledge about a trade thought to piggy-back smuggling networks for other illicit goods such as narcotics, starting in neighbours such as Turkey and Lebanon and ending in the West.
That is mirrored by the patchiness of national legislation.
UNESCO’s 1970 flagship convention aimed at prohibiting the illicit trade in cultural property has been ratified by some 130 of its 195 member states. But Rossler said only two countries, the United States and Switzerland, directly implement it.
While February’s U.N. Security Council Resolution on Syria outlaws exports, there have been few national moves to ban all sales of Syrian and Iraqi antiquities outright because of the harm that could do to secondary markets for legitimate objects.
The British Museum said this week it was holding for safekeeping an undisclosed artefact illegally removed from Syria, and there have been sightings on e-commerce websites of limestone figures believed to be from Palmyra.
But so far, few objects are known to have surfaced in art circles, suggesting to some that traffickers are repeating a tactic used after the Iraq war when looted objects were stored for a period of time before being quietly placed on the market.
Author Felch said such a “cooling off period” can be used by illicit traders to ease the entry of an object into the legitimate art world, often via a private collector who will donate it to a museum in return for a tax break worth much more than the purchase price.
Others argue the existence of super-rich collectors ready to pay huge sums to privately display illicit treasures may owe more to Hollywood than reality. They say the real effort must lie with persuading bona fide art players to reject anything whose provenance cannot be proven beyond doubt.
Alice Farren-Bradley at London-based Art Recovery Group, a private company that runs a database of registered antiquities, said everything from solid documentation to common sense is needed to determine whether the origin of an object was suspect.
“It’s that gut feeling when you are offered something ... for example if it’s got chisel-marks on it. I did archaeology and one does not excavate with a chisel. You go in as lightly as possible,” she said, noting that much looting is done quickly, clumsily and after nightfall.
Farren-Bradley argued that schemes to establish the exact provenance of objects can help by undermining the market value of any good seen as suspect, therefore removing the financial incentive for it to be looted in the first place.
UNESCO’s Rossler agreed, saying the organisation was working with auctioneers Christie’s and Sotheby’s to persuade art professionals never to buy anything without clear documentation.
Yet the setbacks encountered by the “Kimberley Process”, a certification scheme launched in 2000 to combat blood diamonds, show it will not be easy. As recently as last November, a U.N. panel concluded that illicit diamond sales were still funding a bloody conflict in Central African Republic.
Felch argues a more direct route would be to provide proper funding for law enforcement agents in potential end-markets such as the United States and elsewhere to help undercover efforts to penetrate smuggling networks and ensnare the ringleaders.
“Federal agents are being offered looted stuff out of Syria,” he said. “But they don’t even have the resources to set up a sting operation.”
Additional reporting by Jessica Chen in Paris and Michael Holden in London; Editing by Crispian Balmer