Ancient statues, jewelry or coins: when 'Islamic State' militants aren't destroying priceless works of art, they are selling them to fund terrorism. And they're getting better at it, says archeologist Mark Altaweel.
DW: Swedish police are investigating whether precious artefacts from Syria have been smuggled into the country. They suspect "Islamic State" (IS) fighters returning from Syria could have brought the stolen goods. Is that usually how these artefacts end up in Europe and elsewhere?
Mark Altaweel: There are probably many channels [through] which they come - returning fighters are certainly one way. Another probably more common way is just normal flights or contacts between the region and Europe. Turkey and Germany, for instance, have very strong contacts. There is a lot of utilization of existing networks, trade networks, perhaps business ties and I think that moves a lot of objects between the areas.
We don't have a complete, systematic understanding of how these trade networks work at any given time, but certainly things are moving at relatively high volume probably to Europe as well as North America and possibly even Japan.
Sweden is not considered to have a huge market for these goods. Where are the hotspot markets for looted art and antiques from Syria?
The two places I know in Europe have been primarily England - London, basically - and Germany. There have been reports that Italy has been receiving some of these objects. North America, particularly the United States, has also been a top market.
We don't have a very complete or systematic understanding of where all the things are going. So far, we've only seen reports that something has turned up here, other things have turned up somewhere else.
Sweden is not usually considered a major market, but it certainly has people who have the wealth and the interest in the region and also connections to the region as well. That's also important. I wouldn't be surprised if Sweden had a lot of objects going to it.
So Sweden could be a market itself but also be a sort of stopover point for the goods?
Exactly. It could be a stopover, because there are a lot of ties between Middle Eastern communities and Sweden. I think a lot of this is moving with people who have contacts in these areas. I think it's a very personal kind of exchange network.
Traders have knowledge of certain people, who are seeing things on WhatsApp or other kinds of Internet applications. It's social media that's being used to sell these objects.
If it's just a stopover, what happens next?
It's not completely clear - I think they are both markets but also possibly transit regions. It's probably easier to move things within the EU once [they are] here.
In Europe, you mentioned it's mainly the UK and Germany. Why is that?
Germany is similar to Sweden, but on a larger scale. There's an expat community, but there's also a demand there. The UK has always been a big market for antiquities, so that's not a surprise. Of course the international connections of cities like London certainly make it a hotspot.
The problem is we don't have a good handle on the scale. It's easier to catch [the objects] in places like Turkey and around the borders of Syria or even Lebanon where you see the objects coming in. Once they go beyond these countries, it gets harder to track them because it's much easier to hide them.
You went around in London and discovered many objects you say came from regions in Iraq and Syria that are now controlled by IS. Is it difficult to spot these artieacts or are sellers just willing to turn a blind eye?
You can't necessarily blame the sellers, because you don't necessarily know if they have full knowledge of these things. It's also difficult to pinpoint the provenance of these objects. But someone who knows the region, someone who knows the objects...
I was particularly focusing on more ancient objects because there are fewer places where they could likely come from. By focusing on these really early materials, I can tell that they are very likely from Syria or Iraq, because things like seals of early glass, small statues and things like that - these things have a very tight provenance from the region.
UNESCO said IS has been looting ancient sites on an "industrial scale" and sells treasures to middlemen to raise cash. How important are relics to IS' funding?
People have been saying it's number two for their cash revenue. It's hard to say, but certainly it's important. There was a raid a few weeks ago by the US on a compound in Syria. What was found was a number of antiquities that were then later returned to Iraq. That shows you that this is an important aspect of their financing for their state.
There must be a massive art market if it is the second-largest source of revenue for IS, after oil, and brings in more than ransoms, for example.
If you look at the scale of destruction and the number of objects coming through, it's quite massive. These things are actually quite valuable. I've been talking to people who are in Turkey now and they've been telling me that things are moving for a quarter million [US] dollars for say a nice statue head. These are fairly high prices.
If you imagine just one statue getting that much or a mosaic of some sort getting that - and there are many of these objects in Syria and Iraq - then you can scale that up to what might actually be there, and then it's not that surprising. We are talking about huge amounts of cash coming to IS.
IS terrorists do not just steal objects, they also practice illegal excavation. Is that correct?
It seems they are more sophisticated than that even. They seem to contract excavators and give licenses and sometimes they may just take cuts of generally legal activities.
People have been looting graves for decades and IS has essentially taken over that charge and given them licenses or permission to dig. Perhaps one way they are raising revenue is simply just taxing it or taking a cut. They don't necessarily always get involved directly, although they might at times. But they are certainly trying to control it as such - so that they benefit from it.
How could the art or antiques scene prevent buying looted art and thus help financing IS?
First, try to learn a little bit from blood diamonds - put a stigma on these things so that people are not buying ancient antiquities. It's hard to say for a lot of these things if they are truly coming from Syria or Iraq. I think if we put a negative stigma on buying antiquities - that would help. It's not completely possible for the police to control this.
Second, I do think we need some kind of high-profile police action to put a little more deterrence and certainly tighten up the laws and continue to pressure countries like Turkey and Lebanon [to stop] receiving these objects near their borders. I know Turkey has been clamping down a little more lately, which is good. But Lebanon certainly needs to be held accountable.
I am bit skeptical if we can completely stop it, but I think we can at least make it harder.
Mark Altaweel is a lecturer in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.