Wednesday 20 April 2016

Dispatches and the Missing Evidence

Having been approached by a member of the production team for a Channel 4 Dispatches programme for my input last year, I watched the final outcome with interest on Monday night ("ISIS and the Missing Treasures", Radio Times, 18 April 2016). For those who missed the first showing there are repeats and a streaming video. And Channel 4 has issued a summary.

The amount of preparation for a TV documentary is impressive and the team must find it painful that the project ultimately has to be ruthlessly edited to cram it into only 30 minutes. Although such programmes may draw on scholarly research, it is of course inevitable that their paramount objective is to attract as large an audience as possible within that short span. Thus, they tend to focus on 'popular', 'topical' and 'compelling' - sometimes even favouring the pull of being 'sensational' at the risk of overlooking a mainstay of true scholarship: impartial objectivity.

The catchy title - ISIS and the Missing Treasures - had an Indiana Jones ring to it. The programme did indeed promise to be sensational. However, I am not entirely convinced that the two main "treasures" featured had much, if any, connection to ISIS (also known as ISIL, IS or whatever other acronym is used to denote an organisation currently calling itself the Islamic State).

A carved stone lintel being offered by a minor dealer in Grays Market, a London antiques arcade, was discovered to have been documented as having formed part of a ruined Jewish building at Nawa in Syria in 1988. The lintel had no provenance and it is almost certain that it was stolen and smuggled - but the question is when and by whom.

The programme's title - plus strategic footage of Islamist forces - inferred the culprits were ISIS. But Nawa was captured by al-Nusra Front and other rebel factions, most recently in November 2014, and al-Nusra Front had already split from ISIS by the end of 2013. So, were the real culprits al-Nusra Front?

It is certainly true that civil strife fosters conditions that encourage and often facilitate looting but pinning the blame on any specific group can be difficult. In the absence of more information, all we can safely say is that the lintel was removed from Syria sometime after 1988 and it is quite possible that those responsible were simply part of one of the looting and smuggling networks that have existed in that part of the world for many decades.

The second "treasure" was a Quran advertised on eBay by a seller using the username 'london_oriental'. A team met up with the seller to examine the book in Copenhagen. A fragment torn from the top of an endpaper suggested that a previous owner's seal or inscription had been removed to hide the fact that the book had been stolen. Although the book was advertised as "Persian", an expert identified it as 19th/20th century and "suspect[ed] it was originally taken from a Syrian library". The freshness of the tear on the endpaper caused another expert to speculate that it had been "probably removed quite recently" (though in fact paper tears can remain fresh-looking for decades).

The book may well have been stolen from a Syrian library - but again the question is when and by whom. Objects stolen from various places have been filtering onto the black market for centuries.

The programme's caption on the Channel 4 website - "A battle to stop the Isis cashing in on looted antiquities is being waged in the UK" - expresses a noble aim but, even leaving aside the notion that a modern Quran is an "antiquity" in the first place, the documentary failed to track down a single object in the UK that had definitely been looted from Syria or Iraq since civil unrest began in 2011, let alone one that had definitely helped to fund ISIS.

The Channel 4 Dispatches programme was quite right to emphasise that buyers must insist on a provenance when considering the purchase of any object they even vaguely suspect may have been stolen, and it made attempts to give a balanced view of the situation. However, we are still left wondering why the media is fixated only on ISIS (it is far from being the sole reason for Syria's appalling loss of its heritage both before and during the crisis) and, despite wild claims, just how much money that organisation is really making from the sale of antiquities. And how many of those antiquities are really reaching the UK.

Even only one object is one object too many and we must be utterly vigilant but this programme did nothing to dispel the suspicion that the involvement of the UK market in ISIS loot may be greatly exaggerated. If it is not exaggerated, that omission is counterproductive. If it is, we are largely left tilting at windmills for the sake of sensationalism.


Images are screenshots from a named TV programme used for the purpose of review.

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