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To protect Syria's antiquities — don't buy them

The conflict in Syria is destroying not only the lives of the Syrian people but their heritage — the world's heritage — as well.

Syria is a treasure house of history. Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra and almost 10,000 other archaeological sites there hold the remains of thousands of years of culture. Greeks, Romans, Persians, Christians and Muslims lived and fought in what is now Syria. As the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, explained at a recent UNESCO meeting, "Few countries are as rich culturally, have had such a glorious past, are so important for what we are, all of us, for all the things that make, have made, human civilization."

Coins, jewelry, sculpture and other objects from Syria's archaeological sites can be stunningly beautiful and are eagerly sought by collectors. Recognizing the damage done by amateur diggers who supplied this trade in the past, Syria's domestic law has forbidden unauthorized excavation and export of antiquities since 1963. That essentially means there was no legal trade in recently excavated treasures even before the fighting began. But the chaos of the Syrian civil war gives looters and buyers unprecedented opportunities.

All six of Syria's World Heritage sites are now pockmarked with pits dug by looters in search of salable antiquities. Hundreds of other ancient cities and graveyards also look as cratered as the surface of the moon in aerial photographs taken by archaeologists who are powerless to stop the looting. Since the fighting began in 2011, investigators have found hundreds of Syrian antiquities for sale on the black market in Lebanon and Turkey, the first step in a chain of transactions that, in many cases, will lead to sales in the United States and Europe. On Wednesday, the State Department released an "emergency red list" earmarking categories of at-risk Syrian objects.

You don't need to travel to a secret warehouse in Beirut to get Syrian antiquities. You can simply go online, where $119 will get you a coin minted in 150 BC for the Seleucid kings in Apamea, once a flourishing city and now a heavily looted archaeological site north of Homs, in the Syrian countryside. The website I saw informed the buyer that the coin shows an "earthen green patina with some minor deposits" — such coloring and encrustations mean that this coin was recently unearthed from centuries underground and is tantamount to an admission that it came from an illegal excavation.

The looting of a big chunk of heritage can take place like this, coin by coin, object by object. Antiquities are particularly vulnerable during conflict, as authorities withdraw and chaos consumes a nation. Looting is tempting to those on all sides of a conflict, from combatants who need to fund their fight to noncombatants whose usual means of support has been disturbed by war. Although it is easy to feel sympathy for the looters seeking money to survive, whatever the motivation, looting's quick and crude excavations destroy far more of value than it uncovers.

There is a simple solution: Do not buy antiquities. The United States is a major market for these objects, with some buyers who know better and many who don't. Americans can create a market for smuggled antiquities and drive looting, or they can defeat it. There was a major decrease in elephant poaching after Americans decided that the beauty of ivory was no excuse for the destruction that brought it to market. We stopped buying ivory buttons, figurines and other trinkets that seemed individually seemed too small to make a difference — but they did. We need to have the same attitude when we see a tempting ancient coin, statuette or piece of jewelry.

Some collectors who are aware of the illegal digs argue that they are rescuing antiquities by giving them a new home outside of the instability of Syria. But such thinking only feeds the market forces that result in looting. Moreover, the extraction of "rescued" antiquities involves the destruction of the surrounding archaeological context and any associated objects that lack the beauty required by the marketplace. When context is destroyed, so is the chance for the kind of careful study that reveals the workings of ancient civilizations.

Nor can collectors buy guilt-free just because a dealer claims an object was legally exported before 1963. We know that the black market is expert in faking the paperwork and export permits that give looted antiquities an aura of legality.

It is best simply not to buy antiquities, particularly from Syria or anywhere else where conflict and heritage are colliding: Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of South America and Egypt, where in August an entire museum was ransacked, with rioters stealing the antiquities and burning the mummies.

As the international community wrestles with what action it must take to end the death and destruction in Syria, every one of us can help simply by not acting — that is, by not buying Syrian antiquities, beautiful as they are. For the sake of Syria's heritage, and the world's, remember: No market means no looting.

Erin Thompson is a professor of art crime at the City University of New York.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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