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The Jewelry That’s Funding ISIS

I’ve been on  bit of a holiday break for a while now, but this should jumpstart the process for the new year. So, we’re going to talk about ISIS.

Over the past year that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been a household name, it’s become apparent how ISIS is getting its funding. They’ve taken over the oil fields in their sphere of influence and are living on the revenues. But another source that has been glanced over is art. ISIS has been known for looting archaeological sites in their realm and selling the various antiquities that they may take. Earlier last week in Bulgaria, for instance, police raided a house in the city of Shuman to find about a score of marble and limestone statues that are in the style of Sumerian statuary. Another group of antiquities were seized in Turkey after almost being smuggled in from Syria, and, in Britain, a Syrian artifact was confiscated and is now being held for safekeeping at the British Museum in London.


Whatever art and structures that ISIS deems to be heretical, they destroy, like the columns of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra. Also, ISIS has only recently discovered how lucrative that the looting of artifacts can be. So, ISIS has kicked its looting machine into overdrive, with men conducting excavations all over their area of control. Ancient sites like Dura-Europos are the most popular areas for looters. But there’s a lighter side to this as well. About a little over a year ago, I found out about an organization known as the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA). They are essentially the modern and Syrian version of the Monuments Men. They’ve been going around the war zone in Syria trying to protect whatever artifacts and archaeological sites they can. And it’s not just in the countryside, like Palmyra. Most of the fighting of the Syrian Civil War has been going on within the cities, like Aleppo, and many of the historic buildings going back to the Ottoman era have been reduced to rubble.


However, the often overlooked flow of income to ISIS is from ISIS-supporters and sympathizers across the world, especially in Europe. Back in November and December, a group of eight ISIS-supporters was arrested in Germany. In Cologne, home to the famous Cologne Cathedral, the group was brought up on charges of burglary of churches and schools within the city. The prosecutors attest that the items stolen were used in church services: crosses, chalices and goblets, collection boxes, et cetera. From the schools, the group was also stealing some laptops and cash cards, the latter of which were used to buy jewelry so that they could resell it afterwards. Since 2011, these men have stolen approximately nineteen thousand Euros’ worth of items. These items would have later been sold so that the money could be funneled to jihadists in Syria. This, however, is not a standalone incident. In the city of Düsseldorf, a similar trial is underway in charging three men with sending funds to ISIS.

But when authorities catch people either sending money to ISIS or in possession of looted antiquities, they are only considered rare victories. This is most likely because of weak laws. Customs officers can only inspect a certain portion of goods crossing international borders. The Bulgarian police have no idea how those Sumerian statues ended up in a small city in the east of the country; and for every cache of stolen antiquities that are confiscated, an exponentially greater amount of goods are reaching their destinations in Europe. Middle Eastern looting has supplied dealers in Europe, as well as in the United States, for decades.

But, ever since the United States-led coalition has begun to confront the Islamic State, ISIS’s territory in Iraq has shrunk by forty percent, and its territory in Syria has shrunk by twenty percent. So, let us hope that this will all be over soon.

About Nathan Scheer

Nathan Scheer is contributor to The Artoholic and a webmaster for TheArtExperts.org, who is currently studying History and International Studies at Elon University in North Carolina. He has also worked for Rehs Galleries, Inc. and Rehs Contemporary Galleries, Inc., which specialize in 19th and 20th Century European paintings and contemporary academic paintings, respectively, as well as Christie's Rockefeller Center.


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