Nearly 100 Syrian artifacts stolen by the Islamic State group (ISIS) have been smuggled into Britain and sold to finance the terror group's activities, art crime and archaeology experts say.
Looted items allegedly being sold in London include Roman pottery and glass worth hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as gold and silver Byzantine coins, according to British media reports.
"I get approached all the time about looted artifacts, whether it's directly from someone who's trying to sell it or images that were sent to somebody," said Christopher Marinello, director of Art Recovery International
, a group specializing in identifying and recovering stolen items.
Marinello told the Times of London that a single item could be worth tens of thousands of dollars. But the more valuable goods tend to draw increased scrutiny, so collectors tend to avoid them.
As a result, he said, trade tended to be in "middle-value items that don't stand out."
The Washington Post cited
the Times' story, which quoted Michael Danti — an archaeologist with the Syrian Heritage Initiative
— as stating that ISIS' involvement in the illicit trade is widely known.
"We see heavy looting in ISIS-controlled areas," Danti said. "Also, common sense: ISIS controls smuggling."
The smuggling is widely thought to occur via Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey along routes also used to smuggle guns, drugs and people across international borders.
Recently, David Gill, professor of archaeological heritage
at University Campus Suffolk, went to unnamed London galleries with BBC's Radio 4 in an effort to see if he could find any looted artifacts.
"We went into one gallery and were chatting about a piece and the person quite openly said, 'We just got this out of Syria,' and we sort of looked at each other and said that's really quite interesting, and he said, 'Oh, well, this piece is more interesting. It has just come from Iraq,'" Gill told the British station afterward. "So it's quite open in that sense."
The trade in stolen antiquities is one of ISIS' "main sources of funding," the BBC reported
earlier this month.
The U.N. Security Council recently banned all trade in artifacts from Syria, criticizing the terrorist group for looting cultural sites to strengthen its ability "to organize and carry out terrorist attacks."
The television network made contact with a man using the alias "Mohammed" who has been involved in an antiquities smuggling network. A former resident of Syria, he has moved to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, where he currently plies his trade. Mohammed produced statues of animals, vases, glasses, and coins that he said were dug up in ISIS-controlled eastern Syria in recent months.
He says ISIS actively controls the trade, and that anyone wanting to excavate must first obtain permission to do so from that group, which has also stolen a substantial number of items from museums in war-ravaged Aleppo.
Mohammed said ISIS inspectors impose a 20 percent tax on items excavated from its territory, and that its enforcers monitor the finds and try to make sure that any statues of human figures are destroyed.
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