Danti’s Inference: The Known Unknowns Of ISIS and Antiquities Looting

Over the last month, a new meme has spread like a sandstorm across the internet: Looting of antiquities, we’re told, has become “the second largest source of revenue” for the hated terror group ISIS.

The claim is almost certainly false, as I explain below. Its provenance can be traced to a State Department-funded archaeologist who is now leading U.S. efforts to protect heritage sites in Syria.

The first reference to it came on October 17 in the magazine Foreign Policy, which published a provocative report on the role that antiquities looting plays in funding the Islamic State terror group.Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 9.40.48 AM

The terror group’s profits from antiquities looting “are second only to the revenue the group derives from illicit oil sales,” the article stated. “So understanding the Islamic State’s approach to the fate of ancient artifacts actually could be key to stopping its advance.” The article’s headline went even further: “Degrading and destroying ISIS could take place in the halls of auction houses, not the Pentagon.”

mdantiForeign Policy’s source was Michael Danti, an assistant professor at Boston University and co-director of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s State Department-funded campaign to track cultural heritage destruction in Syria. In August, the State Department gave ASOR $600,000 to launch the Syria Heritage Initiative. The project is doing important work documenting the destruction of cultural heritage sites in the country, primarily through the use of satellite imagery. Weeks before a week after the Foreign Policy article appeared, Sec. of State John Kerry gave a speech at the Metropolitan Museum calling Danti and his ASOR colleagues “literally the gold standard” for information on the issue. (Danti and his ASOR colleagues will give a public presentation on their work in San Diego on Nov. 23rd.)

Danti’s claim was surprising for those of us who have followed the looting in Syria. The scale of looting is devastating, undeniable and relatively well documented in satellite imagery. But to date, very little reliable evidence has come to light about where those looted objects are being sold, much less the profitability for sponsors of the plunder. I’m not aware of a single object offered for sale in auction houses having been reliably traced back to the conflict so far. And past research shows that the biggest profits in the illicit antiquities trade happen far upstream from the excavators, who take a paltry share of profits compared to middlemen and dealers.


Curious about his sourcing, I asked Danti for more information in an exchange on Twitter. Initially, Danti said the claim was based on “in-country sources.” Danti has dug in Syria for years, but did his Syrian sources really have access to ISIS accounting records? When pressed, he referred to “analogies with AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] finances,” and pointed me to a 2010 RAND study, Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. The study is based on data from Iraq’s Al Anbar province dating to 2005 – 2006.

Of course, ISIS did not exist in 2010, much less 2005, and there is ample evidence that, while structurally similar to its predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS enjoys different funding streams. Further, the RAND study Danti cited makes no mention — zero — of antiquities looting. The only reference to “looting” in the entire paper is this chart:

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 5.32.24 PM

In context, its clear that this “looting” refers more broadly to the spoils of war — seized cars and other commercial goods. “The provincial administration collected revenue mostly from the sale of stolen commercial goods and did not collect much revenue from black market fuel sales, large-scale extortion, or direct taxation,” the report states. “The financing of the western sector was similar, where AQI funded itself through the sale of cars and lesser-valued commercial goods.”

In short, the study sheds no light on contemporary archaeological looting in Syria by ISIS or any other group, something Danti has conceded only half-heartedly: “Needt to know more on how these estimates are made. In Syria/Iraq ‘ghanima’ is used for all looting/theft.”

I called Danti last week for more thoughts on the issue. After a lengthy discussion, he asked not to be quoted, saying he would need to clear any comments with the Department of State. (He hasn’t taken that stance in dozens of other interviews.) In essence, Danti said he stands by his claim while acknowledging there is little public evidence to support it. He also noted that as a “dirt” archaeologist, he is unaccustomed to the media attention his recent role has given him, and says he may have been misquoted.

Apamea, April 2012

Apamea, April 2012

There is no question that looting of archaeological sites has exploded across Syria in recent years, and the satellite evidence is unmistakable. I and others have argued that the various groups involved in looting on the ground — ISIS, al Nusra, Syrian opposition groups, the Assad regime, criminal groups and desperate civilians — would be unlikely to engage in such vast, laborious mining efforts if they weren’t paying off in some way. So, who’s to say Danti’s claim may not be right?

330px-David_S._CohenJust a week after Danti’s Foreign Policy article, David S. Cohen, the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, gave a talk at the Carnegie Endowment describing the U.S. government’s best assessment of the Islamic States’ sources of funding. The assessment is based on intelligence sharing between Treasury, the State Department, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, law enforcement and foreign governments.

In order, Cohen said ISIS’ primary funding sources are:

1.  The sale of oil from seized fields and refineries, estimated to generate $1 million a day.

2. The kidnap of civilians to profit from ransoms. With ISIS making “at least 20 million” in ransom in 2014 alone, Cohen described it as “one of the most significant terrorist financing threats today.”

3. Sophisticated extortion rackets, which bring in “up to several million dollars per month,” Cohen said.

4. Criminal activity, including bank robberies, stealing livestock and crops from farmers and, yes, looting antiquities.

Cohen’s testimony did little to stop the spread of Danti’s “second biggest source” meme. On Oct 27th, the claim was repeated by the U.S. Naval Institute in a article written by a retired brigadier general and two terrorism finance researchers at the Monterrey Institute (“How ISIS Funds Terror Through Black Market Antiquities Trade.” Soon after, in an op-ed for Al Jazeera, Stephennie Mulder, an assistant professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, repeated the claim. (She had it removed from the article after Danti’s sourcing was brought to her attention by other experts.) On Nov. 6th, Newsweek reported it again.

By Nov 13th, the claim was being repeated by Congressmen during a hearing on terror financing on Capitol Hill:

Danti is hardly the first to speak beyond the available evidence. I have spoken with imprecision about the link between terrorism and the antiquities trade. UNESCO officials frequently cite a $7 billion dollar figure for the global illicit antiquities trade that has a very shaky foundation. The Antiquities Coalition has referred to $3 – $5 billion generated by looting in Egypt alone since 2011 (or in some instances, per year), but the research supporting that claim has yet to be published. Rajendra Abhyankar, a professor at Indiana University and former Indian Ambassador to Syria, declared in the Huffington Post earlier this month that “thirty to fifty percent” of ISIS income comes from the theft and looting of antiquities. When asked for a source, he told me it was based on notes he had taken while reading articles that he could no longer find. (I’m now told Abhyankar relied in part on this story in Al-Monitor, which states, “Some even say the looting of historical artifacts has become the Islamic State’s main source of revenue…”) The problem is significant enough that Dr. Sam Hardy at Conflict Antiquities has made a cottage industry of debunking such claims.

The truth is we have very little reliable data on the global revenue generated by the illicit antiquities trade, and even less on the role it plays in funding terror groups. It is, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, a known unknown: we know it happens, but not much more. Claiming otherwise may in the short term bring  attention to the issue of looting, but ultimately saps it of credibility – and the urgency to answer those important questions with well-documented research. It can also taint important policy decisions, as Patty Gerstenblith, chair of the State Departments Cultural Property Advisory Committee, noted in response to Danti and similar claims: “Commentators and scholars should avoid sensationalism…Exaggerated [or] baseless claims hinder rational policies to restrict trade in illegal antiquities.”

This is particularly true, and troubling, when baseless claims come from a highly respected academic group being paid — and held out as the gold standard — by the State Department. When John Kerry gives a speech about looting at the Met, he is using the issue to help justify the escalating U.S. military intervention in Syria.

In that context, it is more important than ever to stick to the known knowns.

57 responses to “Danti’s Inference: The Known Unknowns Of ISIS and Antiquities Looting

  1. He chooses to be a political activist … Academic with an agenda… And Is a poor excuse for a instructor. With his loss of credibility his effectiveness as a teacher is gone.
    Dr Geoffrey A Smith
    Trustee, Museum of Man
    San Diego, California

  2. I’m all for data-informed policymaking. But with regard to the meme, it is worth remembering that in the long term we are all dead, said Keynes, and in the short term getting attention paid to archaeological looting has very positiive effects (witness the White House Coordinator law just proposed); that the notion that credibility will be sapped is not supported by any evidence, and indeed there’s plenty of evidence that lies have very long tails and only sap credibility when they lead to disastrous policy decisions; and that the policy decision to escalate, while perhaps disastrous, was driven not by the meme about antiquities looting but by the beheadings and slaughter conducted by ISIS.

  3. Larry, are you saying lying is okay if it helps raise consciousness of looting and moves the ball policy-wise? Please explain. Sounds a bit too much like Jonathan Gruber to me…

  4. I think (and have been saying to everyone I talk to about this important issue) that researchers need to be more careful when touting scary unverifiable figures lest they be discounted as pandering for funding, or worse, be left crying wolf to the point where no one listens when real research is being done.

    I spoke with Kathleen Caulderwood about the facts quoted in yesterday’s IBTimes article and called out my concerns with these same figures. Its a dog chasing its Paul Bunyan sized tale used to further many different agendas and it should cease before “the experts” have no validity left whatsoever.

  5. Good write-up–well researched on your part. Lately there have been several similar questions raised about the veracity of reports that the illicit ivory trade funds terrorism. From my perspective as a terror finance analyst, the issue is that we don’t have and will never have independently audited financial statements from terrorist groups. Figures are almost always going to be estimates, even if prosecutions are eventually brought against the terrorist groups and some of their finances are quantified in court. Still, those estimates should be based on the facts as best as we know them, and I take Undersecretary Cohen’s estimates as more authoritative than one professor’s.

  6. Hi Jason,

    When you say, “Just a week after the Foreign Policy article appeared, Sec. of State John Kerry gave a speech at the Metropolitan Museum calling Danti and his ASOR colleagues ‘literally the gold standard’ for information on the issue,” the timeline is a bit off. As you can see via the link to Kerry’s speech that you give, the Met event was on Sept. 22 (http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/09/231992.htm), the same day the air campaign in Syria began. That was weeks before I spoke to Danti and wrote my Foreign Policy article, which was published on Oct. 17 (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/10/17/the_black_market_battleground_syria_iraq_isis). My aim was to show how ISIS’s looting necessitates non-violent efforts to stop trafficking, not military intervention.

    Various organizations’ concerns that their sources remain anonymous for their own safety made it harder for me to seek support for stats, although I regret not trying to confirm the statement that looting was ISIS’s second largest source of profit with more sources or seek more information about where that estimate came from. I did make an effort to note in the article that even ballpark estimates of profits from looting of antiquities were hard to come by.

    Anyway, like you here, I just want to make sure that the most accurate information is out there.


  7. Stephennie Mulder

    Thank you Jason – so glad you wrote this. I’m sorry I fell into this trap, and couldn’t agree more.

  8. I would like to thank you as well, on behalf of our team at MonTREP, in addition to Dr. Hardy for bringing much needed light to this issue. Our reference of the figure that Justine quoted from Dr. Danti in our USNI op-ed was, like Justine, to note that the estimate was out there but also to note the difficulty in ascertaining exact figures. I second Stephennie in saying we neglected to clarify the ambiguity and problems of evidence with the claim. As a result, we are being much more diligent about this in our further research.

    Thanks to all for the discussion and clarification in the discourse, we are looking forward to engaging with this community of scholars as we conduct further research on these matters.

    Marc Elliott, GRA at MonTREP (one of the co-authors/researchers of USNI article).

  9. I am going to ask the unasked question here since many of the article writers are reading and responding to this thread. Do you have the ability to edit your articles to make them more accurate for your readership? Given the widespread reach of many of these major news articles it would be in the best interests of all if efforts were made to paint the situation accurately without the hyperbola so that those who are still actively clicking on these articles get real facts. If editing isn’t possible, can any of the writers take the bigger step and publish something in the near future that stops the misinformation from growing?

  10. As a layperson with an abiding interest in protecting cultural artifacts, my take is that the recent media coverage is positive. It educates the public to the very real problems of the ongoing looting of antiquities. To those not involved as academics or professionals in the field, whether the trafficking is of second or fourth or some other rank as far as income to ISIS doesn’t really make a difference.

  11. I want to congratulate Jason for looking for the truth in this situation and not just repeating the ever more wild comments of others. The destruction of sites is very clear from aerial photographs – it must be true. But WHERE IS THIS STUFF THEY ARE FINDING? It is not on the market anywhere that anyone knows. We are not seeing vast numbers of coins from these areas, or vast numbers of lovely artifacts. And if the suggestion is true that all sorts of incredibly important and valuable items are being smuggled through Turkey, how does that reflect on Turkey? Are we supposed to believe that a country that is incredibly serious about tracking down and getting back its own illegally exported heritage is perfectly happy to have all this Syrian and Iraqi stuff going through its territory without a peep of indignation? Some of the statements we have been reading are just nonsense and it is time to realize that saying “it is the thought that counts”, as M. Bingham does, is not acceptable in this discourse. Wild and crazy figures, like those multi-billion$ sums given for antiquity theft in Egypt, are truly beneath contempt (or can we believe that a complete, untouched royal tomb on the scale of Tutankhamun’s turned up and was completely looted and sold en bloc to some Gulf zillionaire – otherwise what can possibly be worth that kind of money?). The situation is bad enough without inanities.

  12. Thank you Jason for this moment of lucidity. As always, Alan Walker got right to the point in his comment above. As one who is on the receiving end of this endless propaganda it bothers me on several fronts. First, it implies that the trade in antiquities, even minor utilitarian objects, is totally corrupt and well nourished from indiscretions or outright illegal actions. Secondly, it implies that “experts” and “scholars” (as reliable news sources) must as a prerequisite be institutionally affiliated. Alan Walker holds a PhD in Archaeology from Penn and several of my colleagues (dealers or private collectors) hold PhDs in related disciplines. I personally earned a Masters Degree in Art History at the University of Wisconsin, with a specialization in Ancient Numismatics. Between us, Alan and I must have nearly 100 years of experience in this field. I think we can hold our own with the so-called “experts” so often quoted. A more personal affront is this constant refrain that anyone who collects antiquities funds terrorism. These are inflammatory words to someone like me who is a career military veteran having taken and honored a solemn oath to defend my homeland. For anyone to suggest that the end (publicity) justifies the means (baseless character assasination) is equally inflammatory. Is truth worth so little these days?

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  14. I am NOT saying lying is okay if it leads to good results. I am against lying, and in favor of accuracy to the maximum degree it is possible to attain accuracy. I am simply saying that inaccurate description can nonetheless sometimes lead to good results (especially when the inaccuracy draws attention to a more general situation which is undoubtedly true, i.e., that even if antiquities aren’t the second largest source of revenue for ISIS they are a source of revenue for ISIS and lots of antiquities are being looted in areas under ISIS control), and that therefore it is wrong to argue we should be against inaccuracy on the consequentialist grounds that it always leads to bad policymaking. There are other grounds for being against inaccuracy.

    I also think that while Alan Walker and I would agree that the situation in Syria and elsewhere is bad enough without inanities, the public and Congress did not agree with us, or rather they did not notice how bad it was. The billion dollar figure, inane though it is, got notice in a way that Rick St. Hilaire’s accurate statistics from the HTS 97 forms didn’t.

    Finally, I would agree with Wayne Sayles that it is wrong to suggest that anyone who collects antiquities funds terrorism. It is those who collect antiquities from regions where terrorists are farming antiquities or taxing those who do who are incentivizing looting, even if what they collect is completely legitimate, insofar as their purchases signal that there is money to be made finding more artifacts or coins.

    • Larry Rothfield and I DO NOT AGREE. He says “It is those who collect antiquities from regions where terrorists are farming antiquities or taxing those who do who are incentivizing looting, even if what they collect is completely legitimate, insofar as their purchases signal that there is money to be made finding more artifacts or coins.” That, to me is an outrageous assertiion. We live in a world governed by law, and thankfully so. To suggest that law and legitimacy does not matter is not an arguing point, it is a philosophical and ideological perversion of what society is all about. Should all collectors of Seleucid coins be penalized for the excesses of ISIS? Where does it end?

      • I am not sure how you get from my statement to the conclusion that I am suggesting law and legitimacy does not matter. What I was suggesting is that when a collector pays millions of dollars for a perfectly legal artifact, the price paid signals that other such artifacts are very valuable. Looters act on those signals. The Erlenmayer (sp?) sale did just that with regard to cylinder seals, just to take one example.

        Where does it end? Not with an absolute prohibition, I’d suggest, but rather with an adjustment of the law that would enable legitimate collectors to continue to collect but would require them to pay a tax which would be used to help mitigate the harm that the signals they send creates. If I were a collector I would be pushing for such a tax and arguing that we need it because it would do more to help stop looting than bilateral import restrictions.

      • Thank you for so clearly articulating your message, which I had obviously missed the main point of. It does help to educate others readers who may not be involved daily in this quagmire. With unambiguous expressions of this nature the general public can readily see what private collectors, museums and even AIA chapters like the St. Louis Society are confronted by. That is truly valuable insight. Regarding that previously elusive point, I’m sure that a pot full of money would be welcomed by those on the receiving end who will manage this proposed “mitigation”. I suppose that would also entail establishing a government agency, staffed with experts and scholars, to oversee and enforce the collection and distribution of this mitigation fund. And, of course, a watchdog group would have to be established: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? It’s a perfect solution to the underemployment situtation in archaeology and other endangered disciplines.

  15. Dear Jason,

    I was very impressed by the quality of your article on Danti’s Inference. I was especially impressed as we have witnessed within the last few weeks in Germany a kind of a shit storm against the antiquity trade all based on the Guardian article of June 15, 2014 that the IS is financed by the antiquity trade. Now a German journalist has checked all 160 data carriers, the Guardian article wrote about. And he noted publically the following (my rough translation): “Where does the money come from? There have been a lot of speculations about art smuggling, income from kidnapping and selling oil. Nothing about this topic can be found in the records.”

    Nevertheless, the rumour is scattered across the globe and the speculations are going on. So we need all pieces of good information we can get in order to spread authentic news.

    Therefore I would like to ask you whether you would allow me to republish your text in CoinsWeekly. Certainly with a note that this has been published first in Chasing Aphrodite and with a note about you and a link to your blog.

    I also would like to ask you whether you would allow us to translate your text into German and to publish it on MünzenWoche. Once again with the note that this has been published first in Chasing Aphrodite and so on…

    Perhaps a few informations about MünzenWoche / CoinsWeekl will make your decision easier. This is an Internet journal based in Germany which is dedicated to coin collecting. But we also publish articles we think to be interesting for our readers. We have about 30.000 readers per month from 120 nations, mainly those who are deeply involved in collecting and dealing coins and antiquities. So this should be your primarily target group.

    The IADAA – for whom I act as commissioner on Cultural Property Issues – would also be very interested to publish your article on their website (in German and English). I know you might have some reservations about being connected with a group of dealers in ancient objects. Nevertheless I think an argument will get even more power, if two parties can agree about it, who normally represent different opinions.

    Once again, I really appreciated your professional approach to that topic. I have the feeling that the only solution of what is happening today, will be an objective discussion among all parties involved.

    Yours Ursula Kampmann

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  17. Can Ms Kampmann be more specific about the name of the German journalist who had privileged access to the Abu Hajjar and Abdulrahman al-Bilawi memory sticks, where he got the classified information from and just what it is he has published and where? She should be aware that Sam Hardy and others, including myself, were sceptical about this information from the outset, so it’s not exactly a revelation that there re problems with that early report. However this was not the exclusive source of information about ISIL funding which pace what she says other sources seem to indicate certainly does include revenue from ransoms, oil and smuggling.

    I think we all have a right to be annoyed by this clutching at straws of the dealers. While individuals like Kampmann, Sayles, Walker and all the rest continue to be in denial, and get excited by side issues (whether it is actually “second biggest’ or “fifth”) sites like Dura Europos and others ARE being riddled with holes, trucks ARE intercepted with sawn off funerary reliefs, whole mosaics ARE intercepted. This is the tip of the iceberg, other stuff is presumably getting through. Meanwhile dealer after dealer in Europe and the US and probably further afield too continues to offer – to universal lack of concern among collectors – Middle Eastern artefacts and coins with absolutely or at best minimal collecting history. Yet every single one of them will tell you “we’ve not seen any amount of new material on the market”. How do they KNOW whether any artefact is recent or not if they cannot tell us where any of the items they all sell are from and how they came onto the market?

    Can coin collectors not follow a simple link to the “Chasing Aphrodite” blog? Is there any reason why coin dealers and their supporters might want to prevent coin collectors looking at the “Chasing Aphrodite” blog? After all, if they are interested in “an objective discussion among all parties involved”. I’d suggest it would be beneficial if as many collectors as possible came here to get a better picture of what the wider issues are.

    I really cannot see European and US dealers EVER actually taking part in a real objective discussion about these issues. If they were actually interested why wait only until their backs are against the wall because of public interest in the Syrian Conflict Antiquity Crisis to suggest initiating one?

    I really think Mr Dante’s word-out-of-turn is being given undue prominence here. Just because he was (mis?)quoted saying one thing which cannot be backed up by facts obviously does not entirely negate the whole issue of where the money from the no-questions-asked buying and selling of antiquities is going. It seems to me that is, however, precisely the way in which antiquities dealers want to (mis)use Jason Felch’s comments. Shame on them.

  18. Just to comment briefly on Mr. Barford’s thoughts, both Peter Tompa (comments above) and I have inserted links in our own blogs to the discussion here—both of them prior to the apparent criticism above.

  19. What has happened to the artifact erosion center?

  20. So if WGSant and CPO can do it, why can Ms Kampmann not do the same instead of copying and pasting the entire text to aid her ’cause’? That was the point I was making.

    Can Ms Kampmann be more specific about the name of the German journalist who had privileged access to the Abu Hajjar and Abdulrahman al-Bilawi memory sticks, where he got the classified information from and just what it is he has published and where?


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  22. I’ve had the existence of Martin Chulov’s source independently verified, so the only (big) question is the nature of the data.

    Paul and I have both searched for German-language keywords from Ursula Kampmann’s translated statement, but neither of us have found the anonymous journalist’s unidentified work.

    If the data has been misrepresented, that is very important information, but a summary translation of an anonymous source without any evidence or even context is not very useful material.

    As has been conclusively demonstrated – as has been confessed by participants – sites are being looted by paramilitaries and antiquities are being sold by paramilitaries.

    As has been explained – repeatedly – the key question is not “how much money are they making?” but “how can we minimise the money that they are making?” And we can only do that through material protection, trade regulation and policing.

  23. Volkmar Kabisch said it, apparently, though the text only appears as a comment by Kampmann underneath Das geplünderte Erbe – Terrorfinanzierung durch deutsche Auktionshäuser, not on as an article on the newspaper’s website (http://www.sueddeutsche.de).

    “Woher aber kommt das Geld? Viel ist spekuliert worden über Kunstschmuggel, Einnahmen aus Entführungen oder den Verkauf von Öl. Dazu finden sich keine Angaben in den Unterlagen.” (http://www.daserste.de/information/reportage-dokumentation/dokus/videos/das-gepluenderte-erbe-terrorfinanzierung-durch-deutsche-auktionshaeuser-100.html)

    I’m looking into it…

  24. After reading Mr. Sales’ Blog post linking to this article, I’ve extracted a quote here:

    “Accompanying the claims that collectors fund terrorism are self-serving calls from the archaeological community and its minions for overreaching trade sanctions in the name of heritage preservation.”

    The OED defines a minion as “a (usually male) favourite of a sovereign, prince, or other powerful person; a person who is dependent on a patron’s favour; a hanger-on. In later use (without the connotation ‘favoured’): a follower or underling, esp. one who is servile or unimportant; a servant, officer, subordinate, assistant; a henchman.”

    Given that I don’t have a PhD in archaeology guess that makes me a minion. I’d like to thank him for clarifying my roll and interest conflict antiquities trafficking.

    • My dictionary has a more expansive definition of minion and my own blog comment was actually in regard to aspects of federal bureaucracy (of all genders). In any case, thank you for reading my views, which do indeed relate to the present topic.

  25. I’ve looked into it. Suffice to say, Kabisch’s work does not deny the existence of data on antiquities trafficking. I’m writing something up now and will publish it as soon as possible.

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  27. Michael Müller-Karpe

    I have checked with Volkmar Kabisch, the „German journalist”, mentioned by Ursula Kampmann, who allegedly “has checked all 160 data carriers, the Guardian article wrote about.“ Mr. Kabisch has explicitly stated in the documentation, that he had access to parts of the information only. And he made statements about the contents of these parts only. The allegation by Dr. Kampmann is simply false.

    • This is very illuminating. There were questions about the Guardian article from the beginning. The source– Iraqi intelligence with every reason to hype the extent of the ISIS threat in order to justify US support– was dubious to begin with. Then, there was the question whether the Guardian writer was referencing money derived from looting or from all ISIS activities in the provence discussed in the article. Add to this the claim of a US State Department contractor that antiquities looting was the second largest funding source after hot oil. And let’s also mention what appears to be a concerted effort to de-emphasize the responsibility of the Assad regime’s military in both looting and the destruction through bombing of historic sites.

      This would be bad enough if these claims were being made in a vacuum, but they are not. Instead, these claims are being hyped by those who are lobbying for a major change in the law in Germany and new import restrictions (along with additional funding for archaeologists and a new White House post) in the United States. And even better, those pushing for those changes seem to have links to bureaucracies in both Germany and the United States whose power would be aggrandized. Moreover, these same individuals could very well benefit either financially and professionally from a change in the law in Germany and the US that would not only benefit them personally with further funding or increased professional opportunities, but provide for the repatriation of artifacts back to the Assad regime in Syria and Iraq’s sectarian government. These two governments may largely be the authors of their own problems and may even be active participants in the destruction and looting of their own cultural patrimony, but they also control all important excavation permits for archaeologists. How convenient.

      It’s absolutely critical that government decision makers in both Germany and the United States be making decisions that impact thousands of small businesses and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of individuals honestly interested in preserving the past through collecting based on accurate information. That is why this is so important.

  28. Mr Tompa, that is an interesting point of view, but if the trade lobby is talking here about figures and facts, can you please explain the basis for the statement that in the trade in the antiquities we are discussing (from Syria and Iraq) there are “thousands of small businesses” involved (how many thousand)? And “hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of individuals collecting”. How many millions would you make that and how? How do you know for a fact that they are all “honest”?

    Is that not exactly an example as the same kind of hyperbole that you are using to question the honesty and integrity of others?

    • I can comment factually on one small aspect of antiquities collecting, the collecting of ancient coins, having written thirteen books on the subject. The Ancient Coin Collecting series alone (six volumes) has sold more than 60,000 copies. I seriously doubt that every ancient coin collector in the world has purchased one of these books and I seriously doubt that very many have bought more than one or two of the volumes since collectors tend to focus on one or perhaps two of the cultures covered in this series. Since I am the sole source for new copies I know this figure to be accurate. I am personally aware of several ancient coin dealers in the U.S. who have in excess of 15,000 names in their active customer list. The total number of customers supported by the 133 VCoins dealers in ancient coins is inestimable, but certainly far greater than the ACC book sales figure. Almost ten years ago, in an article in The Celator, I estimated that the number of active ancient coin collectors in the United States exceeded 50,000. That number, I believe, was conservative because there are many collectors who trade only at numismatic conventions and local venues—where statistical analysis is virtually impossible. Based on my own experience with new collectors and book sales, as well as more than 50 years as a professional numismatist, I can say with absolute certainty that the private collecting of ancient coins is growing at a rapid pace and with absolute confidence that my earlier estimate was short of the mark. These figures represent mainly the U.S. trade and are clearly eclipsed by the trade worldwide which has been active for more than 600 years. The figures offered by Mr. Tompa are admittedly estimates, but they are not unreasonable estimates when viewed in an international context. I will agree with Mr. Barford that hyperbole is a distraction and diversion from the serious problems at hand, but the comment of Mr. Tompa is in no way comparable to the media hyperbole that Jason has challenged here.

    • Exaggerated evidence regarding ISIS is being used to justify a change in the law that will negatively impact legitimate collecting in both Germany and the US. MarketWatch reports there are 7-10 million serious coin collectors in the US alone. There are no figures about the number of coin dealers in the US, but there must be thousands (individual shows in the US can draw out over 100). In contrast, Doug’s Archaeology page puts the number of archaeologists in the US at under 2000. So, it can be said with some confidence that the State Department is running a special interest program to benefit a very small number of academics whose interests coincide with foreign cultural bureaucracies the State Department is seeking to please. Looting should be a concern to us all, but the measures taken to address it should be far more targeted than they are. Again, the methods used (import bans and the like) play well with archaeologists who are against private collecting and nationalistic cultural bureaucracies in dictatorships like Egypt and Syria.

  29. Mr Sayles,
    I was rather hoping that the author of those words would answer the question, stating HIS basis for the numbers he presented as facts. There is, I am sure you will agree a great difference between “133′ and “thousands of small businesses” in the same way as there is between “60 000” (or whatever) and “millions”. Mr Tompa was clearly discussing the trade communities in just two countries, US and Germany. As for how “serious” the soundbite some are discussing here with great relish, I refer you to my blog post today where I answer Ms Kampmann’s IADAA “proof” (I am not sure if I am allowed to provide a link here). I think it needs seeing in the context of what the author of that 17th October article was trying to say (as indeed she tells us earlier on in the comments thread above).

    By the way I am very interested in what your dictionary says about the definition of the word “minion”.

    • Dr Geoffrey A Smith

      Paul, I didn’t join this group to read another of your flame wars. There is a reason you were kicked off from the ancientartifacts group for one.
      Jason if you wish to keep this of value to our community, please moderate those who write to fight rather than inform.
      Dr Geoffrey Smith
      Trustee, Museum of Man
      San Diego, California

      • Dr Smith, the reason you personally “joined this group” are rather immaterial. Requesting clarification is hardly a ‘flame’ (outside your list). The topic discussed is the “numbers” that are claimed and what significance they be given. Claims are made here on both “sides” and I think if one side is to be held to standards and attacked for allegedly not holding them (as you did in the first comment right at the top of this thread), then perhaps others might make the effort to uphold the standards they impose on others. Thanks.

    • Dr Geoffrey A Smith

      Is this the same person who uses blogs to create andconduct flame wars?
      This I found on the net.
      And if so despite an apparent desire to insult and debate “the big boys” in a field there is little substance to back up his pretext of expertise. Frankly, there appears to be a chip on his shoulder rather than a credible university doctorate in his CV.

      As to Barford’s credentials, this is what he posted to the Unidroit list in November of 2007:
      “My first degree was from London;
      although I was twice awarded a post graduate degrees from a foreign university, it is true that the thesis I wrote in 1994 was never formally defended, for reasons I do not care to go into here.”

      The greater issue, however, in Barford’s case is his inability to express an opinion without pouring on the ad hominem insults.

      So again Jason is this what you want your otherwise excellent site to become?

      • Tell you what Dr Geoffrey A. Smith, take a look at you dictionary just to check what it means and then tell me where you see any kind of “as hominem” remark in my reply to you above. I would not like to comment on your own behaviour here. Your desire to only converse with holders of a PhD from a “credible university” has been noted. Perhaps we could return now to the ‘numbers’ question.

  30. I think I’ve said enough to make my point and do thank Jason Felch for the latitude to do that.

  31. For Mr. Barford, here is a link to the MarketWatch report that mentions this figure. http://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-to-follow-the-money-in-rare-coin-collecting-2012-09-06

    These are probably mostly US coin collectors, but I suspect most US coin collectors own at least some ancient and foreign coins now potentially subject to restriction. I should also note my own guesstimate above was more modest as is Wayne’s.

    It would be good to get more solid numbers. Perhaps the State Department could let out another $600,000 contract to help find out…

  32. Not to be too picky but Jason himself posted an interview recently with a Syria expert that includes this exchange on for-profit looting …

    AA: It’s very widespread…just about everybody is doing it. Its happening all over. Especially in the Eastern areas, along Euphrates, there are thousands upon thousands of archaeological sites. They’re destroying many many layers of history and culture that we’ll never recover. It’s so systematic right now, huge chunks of our history is disappearing.

    Now with ISIS on the scene, this has become much much worse. ISIS has instituted the concept of khums, the 20% tax, and said to the locals, you can dig on your own land but pay us a fifth of what you make. On public land, they’ve started licensing crews to come in – Turks, Kurds, Iraqis coming with bulldozers to get at the few bobbles coming out. Most of the stuff coming out is not priceless artifacts. They’re pots, a small statue, a tablet or cylinder seals. This stuff is small potatoes economically, so the income is based on bulk more than a significant piece of great value.

    JF: What evidence is there to support this?

    AA: The evidence comes from locals who we know who I communicate with regularly. They tell is ISIS representatives are at the archaeological sites to make sure the khums is paid.

    Ridiculous dollar figures should always be greeted skeptically and JF’s work is exemplary. But there is ample evidence that ISIS sees money to be made in blood antiquities. They may just be a little bit pregnant, but pregnant they are, as Mr. Hardy notes. The pro-trade crowd needs to own to the fact that a market exists for these objects. Egyptian objects from 2011 are knows to have turned up on EBay last year. The biggest buyers for the Syrian items are the unscrupulous in Turkey and Cyprus who sell to ready markets in UAE and China.

  33. Well the Swiss politicians are listening it seems. Their National Council approved, (113 votes in favor of, 65 against) a motion to prohibit trade in cultural goods from Syrian. The motion also asks the government to prepare a suitable place inside the country to safeguard the cultural heritage from Syria and Iraq. This point is already included in their new Federal Law on the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflicts, disasters and emergency situations that will come into effect January 01. 2015.

  34. ps. The motion still has to go to the Swiss Senate.

  35. By way of clarification about a prior post I made here, there also appears to be some discrepancy about the number of archaeologists in the US. Doug’s Archaeology page puts the number of academic archaeologists as under 2,000. (the group that seems most interested with this issue.) See http://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/academic-archaeologists-in-america-how-many-are-there/
    In contrast, the total he gives who work in the area in the US is 11,000-12,000. See http://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/with-archaeology-and-science-under-assault-how-many-allies-do-we-have-number-of-people-with-archaeology-degrees/ Most apparently work in cultural resources management.

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