Multiple Agencies Join Effort to Track ISIS-Damaged Antiquities

Summit comes six months after ISIS destroyed two famous ancient shrines in Palmyra, Syria. Summit comes six months after ISIS destroyed two famous ancient shrines in Palmyra, Syria. SANA via AP

As violence by the Islamic State continues to dominate the news, a joint effort by federal agencies, nonprofits and scholars is proceeding apace to document, preserve and protect cultural artifacts that have been destroyed or are threatened in Iraq and Syria.

On Friday, six months after ISIS destroyed two famous ancient shrines in Palmyra, the National Geographic Society will host an international summit “Protecting Our Shared Heritage in Syria.” Set to include a lunchtime session open to the public, it is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and organized by the Boston University-based American Schools of Oriental Research along with the Archaeological Institute of America.

“The purpose is to identify overlaps and find places where we can collaborate,” said Allison Cuneo, a project manager at the American Schools of Oriental Research. The group’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives summit will consist of 20 organizations, including nonprofits and European scholars as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Speakers from the State Department and the national endowment are scheduled at the conference, including Mark Taplin, deputy assistant secretary of State for policy in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The schools’ organizers have been working with the State Department since August 2014 to raise global awareness of the destruction of temples and artifacts caused by ISIS.  They describe their effort as “an international collaboration with individuals from Syria, Iraq, the United States, Canada, England, France, Germany, Lebanon, and Jordan working together to protect heritage sites in Syria. We recognize that our success will be incomplete as long as the war rages, but we can and must do what we can now,” a statement said.

A like-minded conference was held by the State Department in New York City in September 2014, which featured Secretary of State John Kerry as a speaker and gathered officials from the Homeland Security Department, the FBI and the Justice Department. That came a month after State launched a partnership with ASOR to protect cultural properties by “documenting damage, promoting global awareness and planning emergency post-war responses.”

That agreement was recently renewed, a State spokeswoman told Government Executive, and ASOR continues to issue weekly reports. “We work with U.S. law enforcement agencies, our international partners,  and stakeholders, such as collectors and museum officials, to discuss the measures we can take together to cut off trafficking in antiquities not only from Iraq and Syria, but artifacts from other countries – including the United States,” she said. “We are working with museums to train law enforcement agents to recognize artifacts that may be coming in illegally into the United States.”

The preservation effort also requires bilateral arrangements with other governments of nations through which illegal artifacts may be transported, with plans for their eventual return to their country of origin. “We work with international and national police, customs officials, and ministries of culture to alert art dealers and collectors to the types of plundered artifacts that may be circulating illegally on the antiquities market,” the spokeswoman said. “The State Department also sponsors the publication of the Emergency Red List of Iraqi and Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, which has photos and descriptions of categories of artifacts that are likely to be trafficked,” based in part on satellite photography.

Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken has offered “rewards of up to $5 million dollars for information leading to the significant disruption of the sale and/or trade of antiquities by, for, on behalf of, or to benefit ISIL,” as part of the Rewards for Justice program, the State spokeswoman added. Tipsters are also encouraged to supply information on broader smuggling networks that help the terrorist group buy and sell oil along with antiquities.

The ASOR scholars are welcoming indirect cooperation from the Homeland Security and Justice departments. Special agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a part of Immigration and Customs enforcement, use their investigative authority to seize illegally imported cultural objects, the unit’s website notes. Since 2007, agents have been training to learn “the latest techniques and trends for conducting criminal investigations of cultural property. “The Smithsonian Institution's Museum Conservation Institute provides HSI special agents with on-site training on how to handle, store, photograph and authenticate cultural property and works of art.”

Customs and Border Protection enforces bilateral agreements and import restrictions on certain foreign cultural property and archaeological materials while working with ICE and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, DHS said. “More than 2,300 artifacts have been returned to 18 countries since 2007 including paintings from France, Germany and Austria, an 18th-century manuscript from Italy, and a bookmark belonging to Hitler, as well as cultural artifacts from Iraq including Babylonian, Sumerian and neo-Assyrian items.

The FBI, sometimes in cooperation with Interpol, is also at work warning collectors and dealers via circulated fliers to be wary of ancient valuables that may have been looted by ISIS. “We now have credible reports that U.S. persons have been offered cultural property that appears to have been removed from Syria and Iraq recently,” Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program, announced in August.

As ASOR conference organizers stress, the effort to curb the damage from pillaging by ISIS is global and collaborative.

In February, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution obligating member states to take steps to prevent terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria from receiving donations and from benefiting from trade in oil, antiquities and hostages.

In May, a U.S. Special Forces against an ISIS stronghold in Syria recovered a “significant cache” of ancient coins, pottery, glass, ivory, stone, jewelry, figurines, bowls and manuscripts. Those items were subsequently returned to the Iraq National Museum, as noted by State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The push to preserve the ISIS-threatened antiquities has also drawn interest in Congress. This October, officials from agencies, museums and the scientific community convened for a program titled "Death of History: Witnessing Heritage Destruction in Syria and Iraq," hosted by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. It was organized by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum along with the Smithsonian, AAAS and the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield. The Penn Center received a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Casey, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and other lawmakers have introduced the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act (H.R. 1493, S. 1887) to restrict the import of illicit Syrian artifacts. It follows a similar law passed by Congress in 2004 to protect Iraqi artifacts. The bill passed the House in June and awaits action in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

This article has been corrected to accurately reflect sponsorship of and participation in Friday's summit. 

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