ISIS, looting and the antiquities trade: expert panel discussion at the National Hellenic Museum

The Arch of Triumph at Palmyra, Syria was recently destroyed by ISIS.

By Josef Siebert

Recent attacks by ISIS have destroyed cultural artifacts, ancient architecture and archaeological sites in the Middle East. The importance of these actions can be lost on an audience halfway around the world. But when the consequences include increased terrorism as well as the loss of thousands of years of history, the effects traverse the distance.

On Thursday, the National Hellenic Museum will present a panel discussion focusing on this destruction and exploring options for combating it. Titled “Antiquities in Peril – Heritage at Risk,” the panel begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum, 333 S Halsted St.

Speakers include Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University and chair of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which advises President Obama on matters of international cultural heritage preservation and Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant attorney general in New York. While on active duty with the Marines, he led a task force in Baghdad charged with recovering antiquities after the Iraq Museum looting in 2003. Lawrence Rothfield, the former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, is also on the panel.

ISIS, also known as ISIL, is profiting financially from looting in Iraq and Syria. According to Gerstenblith, ISIL takes a percentage of the looters’ haul, then turns around and charges the people who smuggle the items out of the country as well.

“We have an idea that they are making about 20 percent on the looters, then another 20 percent on the smugglers,” said Gerstenblith. “It’s not as much as they were making off of oil.”

“One would assume [they have collected] at least several million dollars, but it’s hard to predict. We can see the holes in the ground, but we don’t know what’s coming out of the ground,” she said, referring to images from satellite monitoring of the region. Though ISIL gets paid up front, many of the items sit in warehouses for years. Convincing the middlemen that they won’t be able to sell such obviously illegal objects is key, according to Gerstenblith.

Gerstenblith speaks on the subject regularly to the public and academics and has appeared before Congress. People who come to hear her speak tend to already have some familiarity with the subject, she said. “They tend to be shocked when they hear the extent,” she added.

Cultural heritage destruction isn’t a new phenomenon, and neither is looting. But the way ISIS is doing both to fund themselves and erase history is especially disturbing.

“Certainly ISIS didn’t invent cultural violence. What is unique is their obsession with organization and their obsession with controlling knowledge,” said the discussion moderator Fiona Rose-Greenland. She is research director of “The Past For Sale,” an archaeological looting research project at the University of Chicago.

The August execution of Khaled al-Asaad, an 81-year-old archaeologist and the retired chief of antiquities for Palmyra, proves that ISIS is trying to destroy historical knowledge, she said.

“Conflict zone destruction is important, and will continue to be important, so I’m interested to see what they come up with in terms of policy,” said Rose-Greenland, referring to the panel members.

“It’s really important that we become aware of the value of these things,” said Connie Mourtoupalas, National Hellenic Museum’s president of cultural affairs. “{The issue is] what you should do, and what we should expect our leaders to do in times of crisis to insure that these things are here for future generations.”

Admission to the event is $15, or $5 for students. “Antiquities in Peril- Heritage at Risk” is funded by donations from Grecian Delight Foods and the Parthensis Families.

Photo at top:The Arch of Triumph at Palmyra, Syria was recently destroyed by ISIS. (Bernard Gagnon/ CC BY-SA 3.0)