Iraq's most cherished antiquity, the 5,000-year-old Warka Mask, was returned home in 2003 at the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad after having been looted during the anarchy that accompanied the fall of Saddam Hussein earlier that year. Photo: AFP/Karim Sahib

Linking some of the poorest people on the planet to some of its most mind-bogglingly wealthy, the global trade in stolen antiquities is a multi-billion dollar industry.

The Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East have also long been a focus for this trade. 

In recent years though, many of the region’s ancient sites and museums have become additionally vulnerable to looting, due to the conflicts raging around them.

Yet, while the smugglers’ trail may start in these war-torn places, it often then runs straight to warehouses thousands of miles away – in Asia.

Shipped from Middle Eastern war zones to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore, these Asian centers now act as clearinghouses for smugglers and their clients.

These stolen artifacts – dubbed “blood antiquities” by campaigners – are not always major works, either, but often minor, cheaper objects.

Indeed, thanks to the availability of online trading platforms and social media, this global business has recently grown by targeting more middle-income buyers, in addition to global oligarchs.

“Instagram accounts, Tik Tok and Facebook all make it much easier to find buyers and collaborators,” Sam Hardy, research fellow in cultural heritage and conflicts with the Norwegian Institute in Rome, told Asia Times. “That makes stolen antiquities into a much bigger market.”

At the same time, though, social media are also being increasingly mobilized to try and halt the trade.

Community groups around the world have begun recording their local sites, then matching these records with sales catalogs – and police forces – in Europe and America, where the majority of antiquities are sold.

Motivating many of these activists, too, is the sense that the looting of these irreplaceable cultural artifacts is about much more than the theft of financially valuable objects.

“If you remove these things, you’re removing someone’s culture,” anti-blood antiquities activist Tasoula Georgiou Hadjitofi told Asia Times. “Then, you have a blank page on which to re-write history – to re-tell the story of who lived there, to erase their presence and their past. It’s raping the soul of a people.”

Artifacts looted from a Baghdad museum after the US-led invasion of 2003 are displayed by Jordanian Tourism and Antiquities Minister Maha Khatib in Amman on June 22, 2008. Photo: AFP/Awad Awad

Billion dollar heist

UNESCO estimates that the stolen antiquities trade is worth US$6-10 billion a year, with war zones particularly vulnerable.

Notorious examples include the theft of some 10,000 objects from Syria’s Idlib museum in 2015 and the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003.

Areas of Syria and Iraq that fell under ISIS control were also so systematically looted, that the jihadists even imposed their own tax on stolen artifacts.

Yet, the trade is not only conducted in wartime.

“The criminal networks that sustain the flow of cultural artifacts exist before the war, during the war and afterwards,” says Hardy. 

These networks have the contacts to enable them to shift goods across borders – as well as an ability to survive some radical shifts in local administration.

“There are places in Syria which were controlled by the government, then by the rebels, then by ISIS, then by the government again – and material was looted and trafficked under every single one of them,” Hardy adds.

This material is then brought together with buyers at the next link in this global chain.

“The smugglers declare these stolen antiquities as ‘low value’ handicrafts, or even garden furniture,” S Vijay Kumar, who runs the community-based, anti-smuggling India Pride Project, told Asia Times. “They then export these goods to holding warehouses in free ports like Hong Kong, Bangkok or Singapore, before flying potential buyers in from Europe to take a look at them.” 

These sites in Asia are chosen because of the relative inexperience of customs officers there when it comes to Middle Eastern and European antiquities – as well as the more liberal paperwork regime.

“In Hong Kong, documentation only has to be kept for two weeks,” adds Kumar. 

Following these “shopping trips,” the artifacts are then re-exported, with paperwork showing Asian origins, to art fairs and auction houses in the US, UK, Belgium and Germany.

There, they are sold on around the world – although some do also stay in Asia.

“Even objects from the Middle East can find their way to Asian markets today,” UNESCO’s Moveable Heritage and Museums Unit told Asia Times in an official statement. “In seemingly legitimate stores across Southeast Asia, cultural objects – banned from sale and export – are being sold alongside replicas in ‘antique shops.’”

Meanwhile, the motivations for purchase often vary.

“For some people, possessing artifacts is a way to demonstrate their ‘civilized’ nature,” says Hardy. “For others, it’s about demonstrating that you have the power to access rare, illegal things. For a rich businessman in China, or Malaysia, a statue from Syria is also a way of showing off to Western clients, or an investment in something you know has great value to them.”

The trade is also a major way to launder money and avoid taxes.

“The tax rate is based on the value of the object,” says Kumar, “so you buy it, hold onto it for six or seven years then sell it to a museum and claim a tax break on the current valuation. It’s another type of scam.”

Culture minister Prahlad Singh Patel (R) handed over bronze idols in 2020 of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita which were stolen from South India in 1978 and recently recovered from England. Photo: AFP/Piyal Bhattacharjee/The Times Of India

Fighting back

Last month, a floor tile from Cyprus put up for sale on e-bay happened to catch Georgiou Hadjitofi’s eye.

“It was of such low value, I don’t think anyone would normally have noticed it,” she says. “But I knew what it was and I thought, ‘how dare you!’”

The tile came from the ancient Greco-Roman city of Salamis. Following her protest, the tile was removed from the site, yet its low value and online sale were also typical of recent trends in cultural looting.

The Athar Project, a group of anthropologists and heritage experts focusing on Middle Eastern antiquities smuggling, now monitors some 120 Facebook groups for looted artifacts.

One of these gained 128,000 new members in one month alone, during 2020.

“This shows how easy it is today to buy illegally looted antiquities and how easy it is to get into contact with people proposing these objects for sale,” UNESCO’s statement reads. 

Yet, online projects are also combatting this traffic. 

Kumar’s India Pride Project started amongst amateurs recording local sites on Facebook, then comparing with auction catalogs scanned by friends in London, New York, Brussels and elsewhere.

Georgiou Hadjitofi is also establishing a research center on Cyprus, which will bring together antiquities experts, police forces and local volunteers to monitor sites and web pages.

“Cultural heritage can’t be seen as something just for the elite,” she says. “It has immense value for ordinary citizens, too.” 

Yet, “for every object you find, 100 get away,” says Kumar. 

With police forces stretched – while smugglers are backed up by great power and wealth – stopping the looting and preserving vulnerable cultures and identities is a herculean task.

Yet it does bring its own rewards.

“When we returned some statues to a village in India,” Kumar says, “the whole town turned out. People said, when the statues were gone, the rains were bad, the crops were bad – but now, they say, the rains are good, the crops are good. For them, the statues were living gods. What we had done was bring them back where they belonged.”