Spotlight, a weekly presentation of investigative reports from around the world for Link Tv, reported recently on the European art trade. The selling of stolen or smuggled art in Europe has been a problem for as long as the trade has existed. However, the looting of archaeological sites in Afghanistan has now become a major concern. Spotlight reports that the exploitation of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage is helping to finance terrorism and the Taliban.
The report begins in The Royal Museum of Art & History in Brussels where crates of illicit antiquities are being kept – they had been impounded by customs. Items from looted sites in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including examples of Nal ceramic art and Buddhist art from the Indus plain, had found their way to Belgium. Artifacts from the 3rd millennium BC, the Islamite period and the Buddhist period, valuing hundreds of thousands of Euro, had all been confiscated. These pieces were allegedly headed for the large antiquities market in Brussels. Belgium is reported to be a centre for illicit antiquities due to its strategic location in Europe, easy access to wealthy dealers and most significantly pieces can be sold without documentation. According to Spotlight, artifacts from freshly looted sites with sand still visible on them can be seen for sale in a city where the EU’s headquarters is based.
Spotlight’s reporters made good use of hidden cameras during their research and one art dealer explains on camera how he knows that certain items have been looted, adding that “it is obvious if a piece comes from Afghanistan it is stolen”. Ancient artifacts quickly become little more than merchandise once they have been looted. Art dealers usually claim that items for sale are legal and have been bought from an old private collection. Another dealer emphasizes the disregard shown for what these artifacts could tell us. He says he does not care where an item comes from and he describes one example as originating in Northern Pakistan which in reality he admits came from the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.
Another individual admits his source to the reporter, “I have a friend in Afghanistan” he says, ” I trained him, he is an Afghan”. When asked about how they clear customs, he tells us that if it fits in a suitcase no one will stop you. He also tells us that the customs officials in Afghanistan can be bribed if you get caught. The next dealer secretly interviewed for camera tells us he used to go to Afghanistan himself but now his contacts come to him making it much easier- he no longer has to take the risk of being kidnapped. Things are not so easy for a French archaeology team working in the war torn country; the team has to carry weapons and the threat of land mines is a very real danger. Indeed, it is reported that many archaeological sites in Afghanistan look like they have been shelled due to the number of holes dug in the landscape by looters.
Most of the looters are local villagers who give varying reasons for being involved. Some say it is better than doing nothing at home while others tell us they have to put food on the table. Sometimes heavy rain has exposed pottery that has been buried in the soil and it is easily lifted out. One local villager shows the camera a 3,000 year old artifact he had found.
The wider problem of illicit antiquities dealers generally is underlined by one particular individual who would not disclose his sources. He argued, unconvincingly, that “there will come a time when Afghanistan is again rich and powerful and it will buy back its heritage”. This statement completely misses the point that important archaeological context is destroyed when a site is looted therefore limiting what a piece can tell us about the past. Unfortunately, stolen art does not appear to be a priority for the police or the legal system in Belgium or Holland. Spotlight speculates that powerful public figures and aristocracy are involved in the illegal art trade and so authorities cannot dig too deep.
The FBI and Interpol have linked the antiquities trade to terrorist organizations; 5 billion dollars of stolen antiquities is traded each year with a large proportion of this allegedly funding terrorists. For example, Mohamed Atta, who flew an aeroplane into the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, was known to have financed, or intended to finance, his operations by trading stolen Afghan art in Germany. It was revealed in 2005 by Der Spiegel (a German magazine) that Atta had visited an art professor in Germany in the early part of 2001, prior to the 9/11 attacks. He had reportedly brought with him numerous pieces of stolen art and wanted to know where he could sell it; his reason for wanting to sell the collection was that he intended to buy an aeroplane.
The Taliban are reportedly funded by the sale of heroin and illicit antiquities and this is what gives them the resources to continue a war. One local villager describes how the Taliban would come and dig tunnels into tombs. The locals did not know what they had found but the Taliban had stayed digging for over a month. They then went house to house confiscating what the villagers had previously found. Sites such as these were looted over and over again by locals once the Taliban had left (see above photograph; taken from Spotlight).
Local Afghan dealers photograph their merchandise and send them to potential buyers to generate interest. Pilots and government officials are allegedly bribed and illicit antiquities are smuggled together with heroin. Customs officials in Brussels do not have the expertise to recognize looted items and have to call embassy officials if they find something suspicious; airport security can not be expected to recognize all world art. One dealer tells the report that shipping an illegal artifact can cost 500-800 Euro in bribes but this is all included in the selling price. The UNESCO treaty of 1970 was meant to make it more difficult to sell looted pieces but it is proving very hard to establish that a phantom dealer who died 30 years ago and whose collection is now for sale did not actually ever exist. It is reportedly still business as usual in many countries that ratified the treaty long ago.