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WYWH: Looted in “Fakes, Forgeries and Looted and Stolen Art” (NYC)

By Rebecca Krishnan-Ayer 

“In many ways, cultural heritage defines what it means to be human.  It is a tangible reminder of the beauty and accomplishment of the ancient civilizations, our common origins, and our shared history and identity.  It inspires a sense of belonging and is a source of pride.  Culture has the exceptional potential to be used as a tool for expression and peaceful cooperation, as it reminds us of the contributions and experiences of humanity.” –Sheba Crocker, U.S. Department of State

In June 2015, New York University’s School of Professional Studies hosted the 2nd annual Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Symposium entitled “Fakes, Forgeries and Looted and Stolen Art.” A major theme for the symposium was the increasingly grave threat facing the world’s invaluable international cultural heritage–particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Libya–through systematic destruction by extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS). The topic has gained considerable traction in the media within the last year since the demolition has spiraled into an unprecedented and alarming scale. Leading the discussion on ISIS cultural heritage destruction at the NYU symposium was Amr Al Azm, Associate Professor of Middle East History and Anthropology at Shawnee State University, and former Director of the Scientific and Conservation Laboratories in the General Department of Antiquities and Museums in Syria. Dr. Al Azm delivered a passionate message to conference attendees condemning the “industrial-scale” damage inflicted by ISIS in places like Mosul, Nimrud and Aleppo. He described opportunistic and systematic looting on the part of ISIS and an intensification of an already thriving trade in illicit looting of antiquities and pillaging of archaeological and Shi’ite religious sites. According to Al Azm, “2015 heralded a much more sinister manifestation of ISIS’ control and exploitation of cultural heritage.”

What incentivizes ISIS to embark on such extensive and relentless paths of deliberate, punitive cultural heritage destruction? Al Azm noted that such drastic measures enhance political power, demonstrating impunity and impotence of the western world. With 70% of Syria’s cultural heritage outside of state control and surmised to have been destroyed or damaged since the conflict arose, organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization  (UNESCO) and Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria Initiative (SOSHI) have been left to grapple with a challenging international repatriation effort in heavy-armed conflict and civil war zones. Al Azm called for an extension of the moratorium on trade of objects in these countries and urged conference attendees to escalate and prioritize the fight against international racketeering, terrorism, and wanton annihilation of cultural heritage in the Middle East.

Fellow panelist Edouard Planche, Programme Specialist of the Cultural Heritage Protection Treaties Section at UNESCO, offered insight into the specific steps being taken by his organization to thwart ISIS’ vast cultural cleansing efforts. Planche described a “cultural genocide” that he and UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, are actively working against through legal framework and legislation, treaties, and UNESCO conventions. The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property centers on three pillars: first, preventative measures; second, restitution provisions; and third, an international cooperation framework.

According to Planche, it is paramount that the art market joins and upholds the provisions of the 1995 UNESCO UNIDROIT Convention. Under UNIDROIT, devised in consort with The 1970 Convention, “states commit to a uniform treatment for restitution of stolen or illegally exported cultural objects and allow restitution claims to be processed directly through national courts…the UNIDROIT Convention covers all stolen cultural objects, not just inventoried and declared ones, and stipulates that all cultural property must be returned.”

Considerable efforts have been made among members of the international community to address and prevent further destruction. After ISIS released videos depicting militants destroying priceless artifacts in the ancient site at Nimrud and the World Heritage site of Hatra, UNESCO announced the launch of their #Unite4Heritage campaign in March. The social media campaign was launched on the heels of a smaller protest effort organized by Baghdad University students. Bokova issued a statement summarizing the global message that #Unite4Heritage aims to disseminate:

We must respond [to these atrocities], by showing that exchange and dialogue between cultures is the driving force for all. We must respond by showing that diversity has always been and remains today a strength for all societies. We must respond by standing up against forces of fragmentation, by refusing to be divided into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We must respond by claiming our cultural heritage as the commonwealth of all humanity.

Discussions and dialogues shared at the NYU symposium similarly affirmed the need for a definitive response, for action—for something beyond mere passive denunciation on the part of members of the art, cultural heritage, and art law communities. 

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Other programs on the subject that have take place in the recent month include the September 24, 2015 program at the Asia Society, entitled “Culture Under Threat: The Security, Economic and Cultural Impact of Antiquities Trafficking and Terrorist Financing” and the September 29, 2015 “Heritage in Peril” program held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


About the Author: Rebecca Krishnan-Ayer is a first year law student at the George Washington University Law School and member of the GW Art Law and Entertainment Society. She holds a B.A. in Art History and French Literature from Johns Hopkins University.