How ISIS created a terrorist art market

The ideologically-driven destruction of priceless Iraqi artifacts by Islamic State may be a ruse that actually hides a much more cynical operation, in which fakes are smashed to pieces while real treasures are smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market to fund the terrorist army.

ISIS shocked the world last month with the public destruction of hundreds of seemingly priceless works of art at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. What is not clear upon first watching the devastation is that the bearded men wielding hammers and drills against copies of centuries’ old statues are already responsible for the world’s largest art sales of culturally plundered antique objects.

However, it is imperative that the objects being imported into the legitimate first world art market appear authentic and are not too recognizable. There is nothing more difficult than selling an artwork stolen from a museum that is beloved by the world, as famous stolen paintings like Eduard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ have taught us in the past.

The Times of London reports that ISIS has smuggled nearly 100 artifacts looted from the Syrian war into Britain over the past year. As the international art thieves of ISIS demonstrate, however, the mark of a good smuggler is one who possesses mediocre taste. A smuggler attempting to sell Rembrandt’s famous ‘Storm on the Sea of Galilee’, which was stolen in the famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, would be quickly apprehended and the painting returned to its rightful place on the wall of the museum. They experience greater success selling unknown and lesser artworks which are easier to smuggle and unload.

This is not the first time that stolen artifacts have flooded onto the market.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the FBI launched a major investigation to find stolen Russian religious icons.

When viewing the senseless destruction by ISIS of priceless artifacts that have been preserved by the human race for nearly three millennia, outrage is a natural emotion. However it is important to keep in mind that all media released by this terrorist organization is engineered to promulgate an international brand of ISIS terrorist atrocity.

The ISIS brand intends to cultivate the image of a barbarian horde seeking to establish a Caliphate that will eviscerate all Arabic culture and iconography predating Islam, whether the material they present is true or not. Barbarian and terror regimes of the past are no strangers to destroying ancient artifacts -- these practices were employed by such groups as the Taliban, Khmer Rouge, and even the ancient Egyptians.

ISIS’ efforts to erase pre-Islamic pictorial art successfully communicates their brand image. What ISIS fails to mention is that they are destroying fakes. Blouin Art Info reports that upon the release of the Mosul Museum video, experts determined that “most, if not all’ of the statuary on view were plaster fakes. The officials at the Mosul Museum had previously transported the originals to the Baghdad Museum. The New York Times reported that many of these sculptures were replicas of ancient objects and a portion of the sculptures on display were reconstructed from fragments which included original shards of ancient sculptures.

This is not to say that the group did not succeed in destroying objects of immense cultural value. The nearby Nergal Gate archaeological site was seriously damaged and the truly magnificent 7th century BC Nineveh winged bulls at this location were lost forever.

There is no doubt that the video was compelling, however when examining the group’s decision to destroy fake and priceless art objects a more pragmatic financial motivation is revealed. The pattern that emerges in this episode of cultural genocide is that ISIS is destroying only the art that is deemed to be unsaleable in the international art market. Both plaster cast fakes of ancient statues and priceless monumental sculptures cannot be sold or transported in the current international antiquity market. The reproduction sculptures do not have an inherent value as they are replicas and the irreplaceable winged bulls at the Nergal Gate are both too well known and too difficult to transport for them to sell in the art market today.

Whether worthless or priceless the verdict for destruction is the same. The current terrorist art and antiquities market is dictated by two factors: (1) can an item be transported to a location where a buyer exists for it, and (2) can the artwork be passed off as legitimate once it arrives.

To be sold an item must be exported from ISIS-occupied territories into nations such as Lebanon or Turkey, which have access to the first world antiquity and art markets. These objects are then smuggled into first world nations and legitimized through art galleries and dealers operating in the art business.

Although in recent weeks most world attention has been on objects from the ancient cultures of Assyria and Nineveh, Syria remains one of the largest cultural casualties of ISIS expansion. Entire landscapes have been transformed by fighting, rampant looting, and cultural plunder decimating archaeological sites that were untouched just three years ago. The most dramatic example of this is the Seleucid site of Apamea in western Syria. A before and after inspection of satellite images of Apamea shows the scale of the destruction.

Before the Syrian civil war and subsequent ISIS incursion the site was undisturbed and properly excavated by archaeologists. Since the time of the conflict looters have dug up nearly every square foot of the site in search of valuable antiquities, scarring the landscape with jagged pits. Many of these looted artifacts have made their way into the legitimate art markets in Europe, specifically the U.K.

Despite the high number of artifacts being removed from ISIS occupied territories the artworks being unloaded by the group are not limited to the heritage of Iraq and Syria. Some of the highest grossing ISIS artworks reported in London include Roman pottery and glass, as well as gold and silver Byzantine coins, according to The Times of London. Despite their ideological opposition to Western Culture and iconography ISIS is guilty of compromising the tenets of their jihad in order to cash in on these more marketable western antiquities. With income from other sources in decline ISIS understands art commerce as an imperative to the continued success of their violent jihad.

The U.S. has also been a hot destination for plundered Syrian antiquities. In September 2014 John Kerry hosted a press conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he released a “red list of Syrian cultural objects at risk” which included a number of cultural objects which have been removed from Syria in the midst of ISIS’ war. A “red list” was also announced for cultural objects from Iraq and is yet to be released.

The goal of this project was to raise international awareness of threats to Syrian and Iraqi cultural patrimony. However, the sale of ISIS-supplied artifacts reportedly continues in New York and London. New legislation to prevent antiques trafficking in the U.S. is being spearheaded by Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Bill Keating. This intends to make the importation process more difficult thereby decreasing the level of funding that ISIS receives from the international antiquities and art trade.

Despite all diplomatic and legislative efforts to stymie the trade of ISIS antiquities there appears to be no end to illegal antiquities trafficking in sight. The onus to stop the art market’s funding of the ISIS jihad does not rest solely on the government’s policing of antiquities import. Rather, it also remains the responsibility of galleries, dealers, and sales agents.

As an industry gallerists must embrace internal and external regulations that establish standards for pre-purchase due diligence and end the era of sales dictated by the mantra “legitimate enough”. There are many miles of red tape, local governmental apathy, and civil litigation which lie between art market regulation and current appropriate art market practices. Until that time we rely on the efforts of the educated collector and the dedicated scholar to raise awareness about the dislocation and destruction of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage through the international terrorist art market. All the while dreading the next propaganda atrocity released by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Michael A. Raggi is a business intelligence analyst and art fraud expert. Additionally he has years’ experience working as a fine art dealer in New York.