In an article published today in the online version of The National, a new English newspaper published by the Abu Dhabi Media Company, Loveday Morris (For sale: Iraq’s smuggled heritage) discusses the illegal trade in artefacts smuggled out of Iraq through Dubai. The article was prompted by a recent artefacts confiscation by Dubai Customs’ last week. This included Sassanid and Hellenistic items, bronze statues and "coins that are more than a millennium old". They were concealed in a consignment of furniture and were allegedly bound for an Arab dealer, who has reportedly been arrested.
In November 2008, Dubai Customs found 128 items of Iraqi origin, including pottery, jewellery and coins, behind a false wall in a dhow believed to have originated in Iran. The objects discovered by the authorities are however 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).
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. “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.The article suggests that "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.Attempts are being made by the United Arab Emirates to improve its efforts to detect stolen artefacts smuggled through places like Dubai: "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". "Under regulations adopted [...] last summer, any cultural object passing through the Emirates must have a [...] export certificate, giving ownership and origin". The problem is that the UAE lacks a federal law to counteract the smuggling of antiquities, regulations are determined by individual emirates. A federal law which would give a better degree of protection and more severe penalties for those involved in artefact smuggling has been drafted, but not yet imposed.
The article claims disingenuously that "most antiquities smuggled into the UAE are intended for other markets, where there are more 'end users'...” but this seems a false argument. Quite apart from the indigenous archaeological heritage of the Arabian peninsula, the area is midway between several ancient cultures, Egypt in the west, the eastern Mediterranean to the northwest, Anatolia and Iran to the northeast, the Indus civilizations to the east and Equatorial Africa to the south. Many inhabitants of the region have not only considerable reserves of disposable wealth, but also ambitions to be seen as part of the wider cosmopolitan world which is the inheritor of the cultural traditions from the past of all of these areas. There are many collectors of "ancient art" and "portable antiquities" in the Gulf States as a whole. Nevertheless if this article is to be believed, they are faced by the same problems as European and western collectors in the lack of precise information about where the objects they covet come from. The article claims that the antiquities market in the Gulf States is also a hotbed of the sale of fakes:
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”.Some VCoins sellers have operations centred on the Gulf States, such as Hassan Zurqieh P.O. box 18967, Dubai, UAE and Holyland Numismatics.
Picture: Apparently some of the items seized last week (photo Dubai customs)