British Museum’s St John Simpson denies Europe is flooded with recently stolen artefacts
Reporting of the illegal trade in antiquities from Iraq and Syria is leading to a false impression that the European market is flooded with looted items, according to a British Museum curator.
St John Simpson, a senior curator and archaeologist in the British Museum’s Middle East department, said a recent report claiming that more than 98% of items on some European markets did not have proven legal provenance and in some cases, could be linked to terrorist organisations was misleading.
“There’s a very strong tendency to say that all objects without provenance are the produce of recent looting,” he said. “But some objects have been circulating for decades, if not longer. It’s a case of assessing each item on its own merits.”
Simpson said that in his role as an advisor for UK law enforcement on items that have been seized on exit or entry into the country, there has yet to be a proven case of a recently looted item from Syria being discovered in Britain.
He said: “I think the really telling statistic is that over the last eight years of the Syrian civil war we have yet to prove any objects have come into Britain that demonstrably come from looting in Syria,” he said. “We are investigating cases at the moment but that is a remarkable figure.”
In March, a UN-backed report stated Germany had become an international destination for trafficking illegal antiquities from the Eastern Mediterranean, including Iraq and Syria, with almost half of the 6,000 examined items coming from the two countries.
Released by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the study looked at antiquities sale in Germany between 2015 and 2018, and found only 2.1% had proven legal provenance.
Markus Hilgert, general secretary of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, said the report’s findings were shocking, especially in light of EU trade restrictions in place for both Iraq and Syria. “In view of the ongoing, extensive destruction and looting of archeological cultural assets in Iraq and Syria, this is an alarming finding,” Hilgert added.