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Should looted antiquities be repatriated to Syria?

Erin L. Thompson

A damaged statue seen in a destroyed museum in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

In 2015, Augusta McMahon, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Cambridge, and Alessio Palmisano, of University College London, went undercover for a BBC investigation. The archeologists visited antiquities shops in London to see if they could find artifacts recently looted in Syria or Iraq and smuggled into the UK.

McMahon and Palmisano carried a hidden camera, but what they found was displayed openly on the sales floor of a posh Mayfair gallery: a six foot long piece of stone, once the lintel of a doorway, carved with a menorah and other Jewish symbols. Eventually, posing as interested buyers, the archeologists spoke to the owner of the lintel, Fares Dalloul. Dalloul provided sale, shipping, and storage invoices describing the movement and sale of some objects in 2007. He claimed that this paperwork related to the lintel. However, as is so often true of paperwork in the antiquities market, these papers do not give a complete provenance, since they do not mention the original source of the artifacts (and this paperwork is also of a type that is relatively easy to forge).

Dalloul had also mentioned that the lintel had been published in a reference book. McMahon found it illustrated in Gottlieb Schumacher’s 1886 book Across the Jordan: Being an Exploration and Survey of Part of Hauran and Jaulan, where it is described as an “ornamental lintel from a Jewish house at Nave,” a product of Syria’s Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries CE). Nawa (also transliterated Nave, Naveh, Nawe, and Neve) is a town off the Golan Heights, near the Israeli border, known for its Jewish artifacts. McMahon also found records and photographs of the lintel as an architectural element in a standing building up to 1936, and then a record from the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums showing that the lintel was in a Syrian museum in 1988. She concluded that “[t]here is no question that this object in the photograph and the object that is in London are exactly the same thing.”

Syrian law has generally prohibited the export of antiquities since 1963. After that, antiquities could be taken out of the country only with an export license, and only as gifts to scientific excavators of Syrian sites or as exchanges with scientific bodies outside Syria. Clearly, then, the Nawa lintel, recorded in a Syrian museum in 1988 and now in the hands of a private seller, without an export license or record of gift or exchange, had been stolen from the museum and smuggled out of Syria, although by persons unknown.

Regardless of who originally stole the lintel, it clearly left Syria illegally. Accordingly, the BBC notified the authorities, and the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiquities Unit seized the lintel in February 2015. Syria subsequently requested its return.

The next step should have been clear, since the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property specifically addresses the issue of the repatriation of stolen cultural property like the Nawa lintel. Article 7 of the Convention states that:

The States Parties to this Convention undertake… (b)(i) to prohibit the import of cultural property stolen from a museum or a religious or secular public monument or similar institution in another State Party to this Convention after the entry into force of this Convention for the States concerned, provided that such property is documented as appertaining to the inventory of that institution;

(ii) at the request of the State Party of origin, to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property….

Thus, the 1970 Convention requires its member States to “take appropriate steps” to ensure the return of a quite limited class of objects: stolen artifacts documented in the inventories of museums and similar institutions. Such cases are quite rare. First, it is simply much less risky to obtain artifacts by looting an archeological site than a museum, because large, underfunded sites have much less security than museums. Second, even if an artifact was stolen from a museum, many museums do not have full documentation of their holdings. Creating a full inventory of holdings both on display and in storage is an endeavor that requires the devotion of time, money, and expertise that many museums have simply not been able to afford. But the Nawa lintel is precisely one of these rare cases, and the 1970 Convention clearly mandates its return to Syria.

Yet, despite the mandate of the 1970 Convention, U.K. police are still holding the lintel. In April 2016, the police told the International Business Times that the owner of the shop had “co-operated fully” but that they were unable to establish details of the provenance of the lintel, which had been placed in secure storage “until such time as provenance could be established.” The police said that no arrests had been made and that the inquiry was continuing.

This further inquiry might well uncover interesting information, like the identity of those who removed the lintel from Syria or those who brought it into the UK. But this information is not necessary for returning the lintel to Syria. All that is needed to trigger the responsibility to return is the knowledge that an antiquity was removed from a specific country in violation of that country’s laws. The Nawa lintel – repeatedly drawn and photographed in situ until well after the passage of Syrian law that banned its export – should be as close to an open and shut case as there is in the often frustratingly complex and elusive world of antiquities smuggling.

The retention of the lintel becomes less surprising when examined in the context of the fate of other seized Syrian antiquities. In the last few years, a number of countries have announced the seizure of thousands of artifacts, from Ancient Near Eastern sculptures to Roman coins to medieval Islamic texts, that they describe as having been smuggled out of Syria. These countries include Bulgaria and Turkey, while a Syrian official has also claimed that Israel has seized smuggled Syrian cultural property, and it appears that the U.K. has seized a number of other Syrian artworks beside the Nawa lintel.

But in August 2016, Maamoun Abdulkarim, then the Chief of the Syrian agency responsible for antiquities, the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (“DGAM”) claimed that only Lebanon and Jordan have returned any seized antiquities to Syria since 2011 – and that Jordan ceased to do so sometime after 2015. So, while Lebanon returns seized Syrian antiquities as soon as a DGAM employee travels to Beirut to retrieve them, the thousands of artifacts seized by other countries remain in limbo.

The situation is far different when it comes to the return of seized Iraqi cultural property. Iraq has seen a steady stream of repatriations; for example, in 2015, Iraq announced the return of 800 items from museums, universities and auction houses in the United States, Italy and Jordan, which included artifacts identified as stolen when they came up for sale at auction houses and nearly 200 items taken from Hussein’s presidential palaces after his overthrow. The U.S. alone has returned a strikingly large number of antiquities to Iraq. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) estimates that it has repatriated 1,350 items of Iraqi cultural property since 2008. The Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other federal agencies opened 17 cases regarding Iraqi cultural property between 2011 and February 2016, with a single case involving Syrian cultural property in the same period.

What are the causes of this striking difference in repatriation practice? One might reasonably explain a delay in repatriating cultural property to Syria because of the ongoing conflict there, and a desire to ensure the safety of returned artifacts, but the security situation is roughly similar in Iraq. Rather, it seems that claiming ongoing investigations or mentioning security concerns are forms of polite excuses for not returning cultural property to Syria, since such concerns do not prevent repatriations to Iraq. The question then becomes whether or not the U.K., U.S., or other member States of the 1970 Convention who have seized Syrian cultural property are in violation of their international treaty obligations if they indefinitely delay the return of these artifacts to Syria.

The reluctance of many countries, including the U.S., to cooperate with the Assad government is understandable. Not only does the regime government have an atrocious record of human rights abuses, but it has also been attempting to use cultural property as a lever to gain Western backing. For example, Assad has insisted that the re-capture of the archeological site of Palmyra, Syria by regime forces from IS, accomplished in early 2016, was “another indication of the success of the strategy pursued by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism.”

In this atmosphere of the exploitation of antiquities as propaganda, returning Syrian cultural property to the Assad government would not be a neutral move, concerned solely with the legal ownership of the artifacts, but would instead probably be eagerly exploited by the government as a sign of its importance and official status. Nor would the repatriation of cultural property to the regime be welcomed by all Syrians. For example, Nawa, from which the ancient lintel discussed earlier in this article was stolen, was one of the first cities to rebel against the regime in 2011, and has been repeatedly shelled, bombed, and occupied by regime forces in the years since. One does not imagine that the regime would return the lintel to Nawa if it obtained it, or that Nawa’s citizens would approve of this opportunity to benefit the regime.

Abdulkarim seemed to recognize this reality – that few foreign governments are eager to cooperate with the Assad government. In 2016, he told the Art Newspaper that he knew that Turkey and Jordan were holding Syrian artifacts but that “I don’t ask that they return all objects to Syria, because I know there will be a negative response.” Instead, Abdulkarim appealed to Turkey and Jordan simply to release information on what they had seized, either publicly or at least to UNESCO or Interpol.

Even if not politically recognized by another State, the government recognized by international law remains the subject of international law, and all rights and duties stipulated by treaty or customary international law remain in force in the mutual relations between these States. Under international law, the legally recognized government of a State is the one that has territorial control over it. Thus, the Assad government is still the legal government of Syria under international law.

What should we do? On a national level, seizing governments should be transparent about what they have seized and what conditions must be met for its return. Such transparency can be relative; for example, Interpol maintains a database of stolen artworks, certain areas of which are accessible only to authorized users from national police forces. Thus, the country or countries from which seized artifacts were likely stolen can be notified that they have been added to this database.

Similarly, there must be transparency about the conditions imposed upon repatriation. Information about these conditions should be available to the public, so that interested groups, such as scholars and museum professionals, can analyze the conditions and track the progress of the source country in meeting them. Without this transparency, retaining countries might simply impose more and more conditions, providing cover for their lack of intent to return.

Of course, conditions like these might violate underlying international treaty obligations. Thus, there must be a recognized international body to handle disputes between source countries claiming seized antiquities and countries who are unwilling to return these antiquities. Fortunately, such a body already exists: the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation. This Committee was established in 1978 in order to provide a forum for the negotiation of requests for the return of cultural property, whether under the 1970 Convention or otherwise, in cases where UN member States have failed to reach bilateral agreements. The Committee has not so far handled any disputes involving the non-recognition of governments or the safety of returned artifacts, but there seems to be no reason why it could not.

This Committee is a consultative body; its decisions have no legal weight. It seems likely that a push for transparency and the provision of a forum for discussion will be all that is needed to prevent 1970 Convention member States from using the excuses of ongoing investigations or security concerns from justifying indefinite detention, but, if the Committee’s mediation efforts fail, claimant countries can have recourse to legal action in national or international courts.

The repatriation of seized cultural property to the Assad regime is not palatable to many, both inside and outside Syria. But an increase in transparency would allow the Syrian people to understand that the rest of the world hopes, along with them, for the swift return of their cultural heritage.


Picture of a damaged statue seen in a destroyed museum in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, Syria. Photo credit JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

About the author

Erin Thompson is an associate professor at John Jay College (City University of New York), specializing in the damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft, and the deliberate destruction of art. Her website can be found here.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on the Heritage in War blog are those of the post author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of members of the Heritage in War project, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Open University or Stockholm University.

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