Let’s say you’re a rich Manhattan hedge fund manager in the market for an artifact from Palmyra, the archeological wonder in Syria currently being pillaged by the Islamic State. How, exactly, would you go about getting your hands on one?
First, a word of caution: Purchasing antiquities on the black market is illegal. And it’s the second largest source of funding for the Islamic State, so your money would be directly supporting terrorism. Relics taken from one region of Syria alone reportedly enriched the Islamic State by $36 million, and Americans are among their biggest buyers.
In other words, under no circumstances should you do what I’ve outlined below. But because stolen artifacts are such an key part of the Islamic State’s finances, it’s important to understand how the trade works.
If you’re willing to set aside your moral scruples, experts told FP Thursday that getting into the market for relics looted from Iraq and Syria is a relatively straightforward process. It takes some shady dealings with some even shadier characters, and you’re not likely to be able to flip the artifact any time soon. But if you’re determined, relics are out there for the taking.
“You go to your dealer, you wouldn’t be specifically asking for something illegal. But you could say you have a Palmyra-specific interest,” Michael Danti, one of the archaeologists leading a U.S. government-funded effort to document destruction and looting in Iraq and Syria, told FP.
Here’s how a typical purchase would unfold:
It begins with the Islamic State looter, who actually steals the piece from inside Iraq or Syria.
Then, this looter would contact a smuggler, who would pay the finder a tax as high a 50 percent of the artifact’s suspected price and use existing rat lines to get it out of the country. It would most likely end up in Turkey, according to Amr Al-Azm, an archaeologist at Shawnee State University in Ohio who is also leading efforts to document Islamic State looting through satellite imaging.
Smugglers are “really well connected with the Turkish mafia,” he said.
These smugglers then get in touch with traffickers, who peddle the objects to dealers. According to Danti, who is also a professor at Boston University, if a dealer is interested, rogue scholars and archaeologists will then begin to create what he calls a “a thin veil of legality” to create a false origin for the object.
“There’s a scholarly community that’s complicit with the dealers and the buyers who will authenticate. It’s pretty hard to tell the difference between legal and illegal sometimes.”
Once a backstory for the relic is created, and the dealer and smuggler agree on price, the buyer hands over the cash — illicit Iraqi and Syrian relics range from a few hundred dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars — and voilà, they’re the proud owners of an illegal artifact.
But the purchaser still has to get his or her prize out of Turkey or other countries near the conflict zone. This is usually done through existing black market channels. If the buyer is willing to pay more, he or she can pay to speed up the process.
According to Al-Azm, once the buyer has an the piece, there’s not much he or she can do other than to show it off to friends. He said reputable antiquity stores aren’t likely to buy anything with even the slightest hint of a false origin story.
“It’s traded from dealer to dealer and buyer to buyer,” he said. “Most of it is going to sit, lay low for 15 years, then it will start to creep into the market.”
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