Looted in Syria and sold in London: the British antiques shops dealing in artefacts smuggled by ISIS

When Mark Altaweel agreed to hunt for ‘blood antiquities’ in London dealerships, he was expecting more of a challenge. But as the archaeologist discovered, relics from the ruins of Palmyra and Nimrud are now on display in British shops – and so far no-one has worked out how to stop it

"Isis attacks on ancient sites erasing history of humanity" - says Iraq

This week, Unesco has added its voice to a chorus of concern, warning that looting in Iraq and Syria is taking place on an “industrial” scale – one more sorry aspect to the devastating conflicts in the region. This Mesopotamian area, the cradle of civilisation, is a giant archaeological site – it’s where the first cities were built, and contains treasures from the Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Islamic periods. Today, the pillaging of cultural heritage sites shows up on satellite maps that are pock-marked with hundreds of recent, illegal excavations. Some media reports suggest this income stream is the “second-largest source of revenue” for the group (after oil sales), but in reality it’s impossible to tell. What’s certain is that, while Isis grimly documents its destruction of Unesco sites such as Nimrud, profiteering from plundered antiquities has helped make it the most cash-rich terror group in the world.

Neil Brodie of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at Glasgow University says that, in the absence of coordinated strategies and concerted efforts, attempts to tackle the problem have thus far been ineffective. “It’s not easy and it’s not cheap,” he says, adding: “If no one was buying, people wouldn’t dig it up. This material sells.

London, one of the world’s largest antiquities markets, is considered a natural destination for looted goods. For the purposes of our research around the city, Altaweel is posing as an antiquities collector. He wears it convincingly, but the pose is an uneasy one. Altaweel doesn’t much like antiquities collectors – or rather, the very concept of the trade itself: antiquities, he feels, “shouldn’t be bought and sold in private collections”.

Altaweel’s interest in the region is personal as well as professional: he is an American who was born in Baghdad and has lived in Basra – we trade biographical information within minutes of first talking, as happens when you suspect someone’s surname is from the same region as yours.

Altaweel is related to (and inspired by) the influential Iraqi archaeologist Fuad Safar, who led some of the country’s early excavations and is still widely cited within the profession today. Although his family left Iraq in the 1980s, when he was seven, Altaweel frequently returned to visit relatives. He has worked in most of the countries that fall within the near east region – from Egypt to Iran, from Turkey down to Yemen and southern Arabia – including numerous digs in both Iraq and Syria. During our scout for looted treasures, he occasionally notes that he has in the past “dug up” objects exactly like the ones we spot.

After a few tip-offs, an online search and a couple of dead ends, we uncover some small antiquities at dealers in central London. It takes a lot of scouring through a lot of objects, but Altaweel is fast. His eyes fly over row upon row of items – glass, coins, pottery, small statues, lamps, cylinder seals – and when he lands on an object of interest he lights up: despite the purpose of our search, it is obviously exciting to find and examine these antiquities. (“Do I need to wear gloves?” he asks the first dealer. He doesn’t; the market, unlike the field of archaeology, really isn’t bothered.) Altaweel’s discussions with sellers brings his expertise to the fore, as he politely adjusts their assessments of their own wares. “This is all Indian,” one trader says. “I think it’s probably near-eastern,” Altaweel quietly corrects. “These items are from the Islamic period,” another offers. “Unlikely,” Altaweel states. It’s like watching a rapid-fire game show premised on calling out archaeological bluff.

According to Syrian archaeologist Amr al-Azm of Shawnee State university in Ohio, when Isis took over swathes of the region, it also took hold of the already existing practice of illegal excavation. Until 2014, looting was carried out by various armed groups, or individuals, or the Syrian regime.