Syrians loot Roman treasures to buy guns
A thriving black market is offering 2,000-year-old treasures to foreign buyers at a fraction of their value
By:Hala Jaber, Lebanon, and George Arbuthnott, TheSundayTimes.co.uk, Published: 5 May 2013
ARCHEOLOGICAL treasures dating back nearly two millennia have been plundered from a world-renowned site in Syria and are being sold on the black market in Lebanon, a Sunday Times investigation has revealed.
An undercover reporter was offered dozens of relics including 2nd-century Roman busts worth up to £1.4m by a dealer on the outskirts of Beirut. The items have been verified by five experts, including specialists from Unesco and the British Museum.
Experts say the busts came from the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, a Unesco world heritage site in central Syria. Videos posted online last summer appear to show similar sculptures loaded on to the back of a pick-up truck and displayed for the camera by men wearing military uniforms.
Other items offered to the reporter, who was posing as an art dealer seeking Syrian artefacts, include Roman pillar carvings valued at £384,000 and £20,000-worth of 3rd-century glass vessels.
This newspaper has alerted Interpol and Unesco to the discovery of the stolen items, which are described as the most valuable artefacts known to have been looted from Syria since its civil war began more than two years ago.
Interpol has formally alerted the Syrian authorities and Unesco has notified the Lebanese police as well as the authorities in every country bordering Syria.
This is the latest episode in a free-for-all that has seen looters employing excavation teams, equipped with metal detectors and pickaxes, to dig up antiquities to exchange for guns.
One third of the country’s museums and 16 archeological sites are believed to have been pillaged, fuelling an illicit trade in stolen Syrian artefacts estimated by one expert to be worth more than £1.25bn.
The Art Loss Register in London has received reports of up to a dozen artefacts being touted on the British market that are suspected to have been seized from the Syrian war zone. Christopher Marinello, the executive director, said: “After this find we feel that Syria has potential for the worst looting we have ever witnessed.”
During the investigation our reporter approached several dealers asking if they knew of any Syrian artefacts stolen from cultural sites and smuggled across the Lebanese border.
The first two dealers to take the bait called themselves Abu al-Nour and Abu Mohamed. They drove the reporter from one hideout to another, making frantic telephone calls to other smugglers and traders and demanding “illegal goods from Syria”.
Eventually the reporter was driven to a Beirut warehouse packed with antiquities. Following a tour by the owner, it emerged that none of the items was from Syria.
A CD was presented to the reporter containing photographs of apparently ancient artefacts, including early Christian manuscripts and paintings and a gold statuette.
When the pictures were sent to experts in London, they were quickly identified as either fakes or of scant worth.
The following day the reporter returned to the dealers and told them of the London specialists’ findings. After a flurry of excuses, al-Nour made more phone calls and a second venue was discussed before the reporter was again whisked through Beirut’s alleyways to the city’s outskirts, where the car came to a halt outside a derelict shack.
A rusted iron gate was opened by a Syrian labourer, and a third dealer calling himself Abu Khaled appeared. Eager to gain credibility, Khaled quickly plunged into his life story, describing how he had spent three years in a Syrian prison for smuggling artefacts but was now back in business with a network of Syrians who supplied him with stolen antiquities.
He showed the reporter eight earth-covered, stone-carved busts that lay face down on the ground. The labourer bent down and turned them over, leaning some on sandbags and others on a wooden plank.
“These all came from one temple in Tadmur,” Khaled said, referring to the desert city that lies less than a mile from the Palmyran ruins.
Handing the reporter a brush with which to clean the earth from the busts, he described how the carvings had been concealed in boxes of fruit and vegetables and then smuggled across the northern Abboudieh-Dabbousieh border crossing.
Any problems with customs officials, he said, were solved with a bribe, although the vast exodus of refugees made challenges unlikely.
The labourer then split open the remaining boxes to reveal three more busts.
“They have just recently arrived. These are 100% genuine, 11 in total,” said al-Nour.
A Tupperware box containing small glass vessels covered in dirt was shown to the reporter. “These were dug out from the ground,” Khaled explained.
The Syrian labourer added: “Syria is rich with antiques and everywhere you dig you come across some. These belong to Syria and the Syrian people so it’s only right that we find them and sell them. After all they belong to us, the Syrian people.”
Among the pieces was a lachrymatory, a narrow-necked vase that Roman mourners filled with tears and placed in tombs as a symbol of respect.
At another house on Beirut’s seafront a trader produced gold coins wrapped in a white handkerchief from his jacket pocket. In the back garden, hidden under blue plastic sheets, were several Roman capitals, typically used as elegant carvings on top of a column.
Photographs were sent to experts in London where they caused a stir after swiftly being recognised as historic relics.
The Roman busts were identified as 2nd-century sculptures from Palmyra by experts including Jonathan Tubb, the keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum, and Joanna van der Lande, senior antiquities consultant at Bonhams, the fine art auctioneers and valuers. She described the find as “depressing, distressing and of enormous concern”. William Webber, the Art Loss Register’s antiquities specialist, said the damage inflicted on the sculptures suggested they had been hacked off the walls of tombs.
The reporter approached the dealers again, this time asking for the price they were seeking. All 11 busts were offered for £19,200, about 1% of their true value, the 12 Roman capitals were offered for £9,600, 2.5% of their worth, and the glass vessels for £6,420, less than a third of their value.
It is unclear whether the soldiers shown in the videos are rebel fighters or loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The site has been closely contested recently.
The International Council of Museums is compiling a “red list” of cultural objects at risk in Syria in a move to help law enforcement agencies to identify them. A senior official said: “The curators of museums are being forced to hide the most valuable items in banks and cellars.”