Stealing the Past: How Looted Antiquities 'Fund ISIS Terror'


The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and other terror groups are systematically looting middle eastern archaeological sites to fund their operations, says Peter Herdrich, vice chairman of the International Council of Museums (ICOM).

“They've turned to cultural items in the same way they've used oil and kidnaping—it's a way for them to fund their terrorist activities,” Herdrich adds.

Herdrich joined Prof. Erin Thompson of John Jay College, the country's only professor specializing in art crime, to warn that the flourishing black market in stolen antiquities from Iraq and Syria, largely unchecked by Western authorities, threatens to decimate some of the world's most important historic sites.

According to Thompson, loopholes in regulations monitoring the provenance of art objects and “low levels of enforcement” of existing laws have allowed unscrupulous collectors and dealers to profit as well from the clandestine trade.

“There are a lot of bad actors out there, domestically and internationally,” says Thompson, author of the forthcoming To Own the Past: How Collectors Reveal, Shape and Destroy History.

Both experts appeared on this month's Criminal Justice Matters program on CUNY-TV, hosted by Stephen Handelman, executive editor of The Crime Report.

Five of six UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have already been “severely damaged” by looters, and artifacts taken from those sites are “spreading across the world,” according to Herdrich, who added that the stealing or destruction of antiquities in the Middle East amounts to a crime against our collective cultural heritage. And The New York Times reported today that some residents living in areas controlled by ISIS are furtively recording on their cellphones damage done to antiquities.

“They call it the cradle of civilization for a good reason—it's where the human story began,” Herdrich said, citing the beginning of writing and the rise of towns. “These are important steps in our shared story.”

ICOM regularly updates a “red list” of missing or suspected stolen antiquities at endangered sites from Cambodia to Syria.

Editor's Note: Watch the Criminal Justice Matters program, embedded below, or posted on YouTube here.

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