For sale: Iraq's smuggled heritage

Ancient coins and bronze statues confiscated last week by UAE authorities are just 'the tip of the iceberg'.
Dubai Customs foils an attempt to smuggle archeological remains of Iraqi origin.
Dubai Customs foils an attempt to smuggle archeological remains of Iraqi origin.

Tens of thousands of precious artefacts looted from Iraq are circulating on a clandestine world market, smuggled out of the war-ravaged country and into the hands of private collectors in Europe and the US. Those objects discovered by authorities, such as the Dubai Customs' haul last week that included bronze statues and coins that are more than a millennium old, are just "the tip of the iceberg", according to Dr Mark Beech, of the Historic Environment Department at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach).

"With the UAE such a hub for international trade and travel in the region, it's inevitable that such items will pass through here," he said. Though the most popular smuggling route from Iraq is through Kurdistan to Turkey and then on to the West, a significant number of artefacts exit through Iraq's porous border with Iran. From there, the UAE is an obvious next port of call, according to experts.

"One of the routes is definitely through the UAE," said Dr Farouk al Rawi, an Iraqi professor in ancient languages and archaeology and researcher at the British Museum. "I'm sure the customs authorities of the UAE are very strict on these matters, but smugglers are good at avoiding laws. They are bypassing the customs laws everywhere." He said it is difficult to estimate the number of items that pass through the UAE, but the total taken out of Iraq since the 2003 invasion is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands. More than 15,000 items were taken from the National Museum in Iraq.

Although many have been recovered, particularly those which never left the country, thousands have disappeared into private collections. Iraq has about 124,000 archaeological sites, Dr al Rawi said, and the a lack of security makes it impossible to keep watch on all the treasures. "If you look at aerial photos, you see that the land looks like it's covered in moon craters from illegal excavations and the damage caused by the war itself," Dr al Rawi said. "It's really saddening.

"This isn't just the heritage of the Iraqis, this heritage is very important worldwide. It's the history of humanity." Mohammed al Marri, the executive director of cargo operations at Dubai Customs, said the UAE is improving its efforts to detect stolen items. Customs officials have received extra training, and an electronic programme assesses the risk of each assignment coming through, cross-referencing against past activities of the company shipping the goods.

In June 2008, Dubai Customs found 128 items, including pottery, jewellery and coins, behind a false wall in a dhow believed to have originated in Iran. "It's a continuous challenge between us and the smugglers," Mr al Marri said. Under regulations adopted by the GCC last summer, any cultural object passing through the Emirates must have a Unesco export certificate, giving ownership and origin. However, the UAE lacks a federal law governing the smuggling of antiquities. Regulations are determined by individual emirates.

"The federal law covering this is still in its draft form; it has been for some years," Dr Beech said. "When it's passed it will give a better degree of protection and more severe penalties for those involved in these activities." Mr al Marri said most antiquities smuggled into the UAE are intended for other markets, where there are more "end users". "Most [smugglers] don't have an end-user here. They come in to try and identify an end user," he said. "[Shipments] mainly come addressed not to a company but as personal belongings."

Last week's confiscated consignment, which contained items dating to the Sassanid period, from AD226 to 651, and the Hellenistic era, which began in 323BC and lasted 250 years, was allegedly bound for an Arab dealer, who has been arrested. The items were concealed in a consignment of furniture. Dr al Rawi said most genuine items are sold to markets in Europe and the US, where they fetch higher prices, but they are often copied in Iran first, with the fakes sold in the region.

Dr Beech said between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of the items he is asked to identify turn out to be fakes. "The European collectors are more knowledgable so the originals tend to make their way there," Dr al Rawi said. "Lots of them are faked according to originals and the workmanship looks Iranian."

Published: February 16, 2010 04:00 AM


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