British politicians are calling for greater collaboration between foreign governments, law-enforcement agencies and the art trade to curb the illicit trafficking of antiquities from Syria and Iraq, to cut off what experts claim to be one of Islamic State’s top revenue streams, along with the sale of oil, extortion and ransom payments. A parliamentary debate on the issue is due to take place in the UK’s House of Commons within the next few weeks.
“This is the greatest scale of looting we have seen since the Second World War,” says Robert Jenrick, the Conservative Party’s member of parliament for Newark (see box). Jenrick, a former director at Christie’s, is one of the MPs behind the campaign; another is Hugo Swire, the Conservative MP for East Devon and a former director at Sotheby’s. The Art Newspaper understands that Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, is in favour of the campaign. Jenrick, meanwhile, has been liaising with US politicians including Massachusetts congressman William Keating to build a UK-US consensus.
Congress makes a move
In the US, a bill was introduced in November seeking to block looted Syrian cultural heritage from entering the country. The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act asked Congress to appoint a cultural property protection tsar and establish emergency import restrictions to protect endangered cultural patrimony. The bill ran out of time last month, but we understand that it will be reintroduced soon, probably by the politicians who first sponsored the bill: Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, and Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey.
The link between terrorism and looting means that “it is no longer just an issue for people with an interest in the art world or cultural heritage”, Robert Jenrick says.
The UK campaigners are taking a pragmatic approach. Rather than lobbying for new legislation, they are asking for effective enforcement of existing laws and for more resources for the Metropolitan Police’s overstretched Art and Antiques Squad. The Art Newspaper also understands that the campaign is not planning to lobby the UK government to ratify the Hague Convention, which provides protection for countries’ heritage in times of conflict, at the moment. This is because there is not enough of the parliamentary time needed to pass the legislation, although it has received support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Jenrick adds that the major auction houses are working hard to ensure that they carry out due diligence to stem the illicit trade, but that they need to be supported by stronger law enforcement.
“No one group has done more to put our heritage at risk than Islamic State”
Robert Jenrick, Conservative MP for Newark and a former director at Christie’s
“We live in a time of the most tragic and outrageous assault on our shared heritage that any of us have seen since the end of the Second World War. Ancient treasures in Iraq and Syria have become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting. No one group has done more to put our heritage at risk than Islamic State (IS), which is not only taking lives, but tearing at the fabric of civilisation, looting and destroying the culture and collective memory of millions. Unlike some previous assaults, IS is not concealing its destruction of mosques and churches and crusader castles: it is doing so brazenly with bulldozers and bombs, available for all to see in heartbreaking ‘before’ and ‘after’ satellite images and distributed with pride on Twitter. This is not a cultural crime to be revealed once the fog of war has cleared; this is a 21st-century crime being conducted purposefully, in full view and on social media.”
• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline 'MP leads campaign to stop Islamic State funding terror through trafficking'