The following is a guest post by Fiona Rose-Greenland.
Last week the FBI posted a new bulletin warning American citizens to be careful when purchasing antiquities of Iraqi or Syrian origin. The risk, according to the FBI, is that “purchasing an object looted and/or sold by the Islamic State may provide financial support to a terrorist organization and could be prosecuted under 18 USC 233A.”
Media outlets responded with a new round of articles, resurrecting the specter of a “$7 billion black market in antiquities”, in which the Islamic State (IS) is apparently making a killing. In some stories, IS “fuels” the $7bn trade in antiquities, while in others it “taps” the existing market with great success. According to one NBC report, IS both “taps” and “fuels” the market.
As a social scientist studying the antiquities trade, I understand the temptation to circulate such high-level, attention-grabbing numbers, even if we know they are imprecise. This particular number, $7bn, while highly suspect, at least has some grounding. It surfaced as an off-the-cuff response to a journalist’s question during a 2014 UNESCO briefing. Its origins lie in an INTERPOL report from the late 1990s. That report apparently put the figure at $4.5bn and included all cultural property, not just antiquities.
The problem is, in framing conversations around problematic numbers we tend to close off any conversation of the large gaps in our knowledge. When we say that the antiquities trade is worth roughly $7bn – with that figure being adjustable based on areas of uncertainty – we imply that we understand the basic parameters of this “global” trade. Ergo, if we simply gained a little more precision here and there we would come up with a correspondingly precise revised estimate. $7bn, $6bn, $4.5bn – it’s a matter of tweaks.
But the reality is that we do not understand these parameters. In the public sphere, no-one can credibly claim to know, right now, what order of magnitude of looting is happening in IS-controlled territories, what proportion of looted objects are being sold, or even the range of prices fetched by such objects. Even non-quantitative questions are largely unanswered. Is the Assad regime also profiting from the trade, or are Syrian government employees protecting antiquities (as they claim)? Which artifacts were looted immediately after the first Iraq war, and which date from the IS period? The picture is murky even in peacetime.
Moreover, the $7bn figure is highly implausible as an estimate of the annual value of looted antiquities.
The legitimate art market The contemporary art market (at public auction) in 2014 was valued at $2bn (edited, see comments). IS revenues in 2014 were estimated by a RAND/New York Times report to be $1.2bn, with the main components being extortion and taxation ($600m) and money and materiel stolen from the Iraqi and Syrian governments ($500m).
Taking an out-of-context, out-of-date number as any kind of estimate damages our credibility as social scientists. It’s not that we should reject efforts to quantify this activity, but rather that we should recognize that a certain amount of basic groundwork and understanding is required for any such quantification. And again, engaging in such second-hand estimation without that groundwork hides the critical need for investigative work into the mechanics of this illicit trade.
For my own work into the circulation of ancient cultural objects, this has damaging consequences. All social scientists and policy makers considering developments in the Middle East should similarly call into question any attempt to peddle soft facts about the scale of the conflict and its financial underpinnings.