Blood and treasure: a looted heritageby James Harkin / August 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in September issue of Prospect Magazine
It came at the end of a long conversation in the cool heat of early March in the Turkish border town of Antakya. Foreign journalists, fearing kidnap at the hands of Islamic extremists, have largely given up crossing the border into rebel-held northern Syria, and I wondered how my coffee companion, a portly Syrian who’d been working for some of those journalists, was making ends meet. Not to worry, replied Amer. “I have a new job in the antiques business. Same dangers as before. And top secret. Don’t tell anyone.”
Since Syria’s descent into civil war, Antakya and other cities along Turkey’s long, porous border with the country have become conduits for the illegal trafficking of Syrian antiquities. Having once made a living smuggling journalists into Syria, Amer was now smuggling stolen antiquities in the other direction. Most of the merchandise, he told me, came from Apamea—an archaeological site further down the Orontes river in the Syrian province of Hama. Prices began at $100, for which the punter could have a Roman-era coin, and went as high as $100,000 for statues and rare manuscripts. Amer’s role was to lure well-heeled customers from America or Europe to southern Turkey, which is where he thought I might come in handy. I told him I was happy to have a look. “But be careful,” he said. “There is Interpol. And Turkish law doesn’t like this kind of thing.” Amer could always slip back into Syria, but his main fear was losing the merchandise. It was, literally, irreplaceable.
Amer’s new business, I discovered, was a lean, multinational enterprise. Small teams armed with metal detectors or brushes began by spreading out and searching an area. Some were skilled in archaeological excavation before the revolt, others had learned on the job. Another group of specialists was charged with certifying the authenticity of anything found, after which the objects were passed to polishers who’d get them ready to be sold. Then they were passed to the smugglers who moved them into Turkey. Only then would they make it to Amer. Just a few days previously, he boasted, he’d sold 18 coins just minutes after crossing the Syrian border. Some Saudis had also expressed interest, and were sending along specialists to verify the goods. The arrangement was that Amer was to take his commission by adding a 10 per cent premium to the price, and only got paid when he made a sale. In the photos he showed me there were pots, a huge slab which looked like a limestone relief, coins embossed with the face of a third-century queen who led a revolt against the Roman empire, and a series of lurid pictures of a gun which he swore had been handled by Napoleon during his Syrian campaign. As a new face Amer was trusted only to carry the smaller items, which was he why he had only photos of the rest. “Nobody trusts anyone anymore,” he shrugged.