Antiquities trafficking may be funding violent extremism in Syria and Iraq. That’s a valid concern. But is it worth focusing on the financial aspect of looted cultural artifacts at the expense of other ramifications? The frequently reported multibillion-dollar value of the annual, global, illicit market in cultural material is eye catching. The estimates, however, are not well documented and, consequently, run the risk of undermining calls for protection of cultural heritage and prevention of cultural cleansing. 

What is the method of calculation? What assumptions underlie the estimates? In the case of recent looting in Syria, a UNESCO representative has been quoted as saying, "...we don’t have a precise figure about the volume of looted objects, because we don’t know what has been dug out..." 

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Perhaps destruction of cultural heritage would be more realistically quantified. In fact, academia now has a history of developing methods to measure destruction by looting or other factors. Since 2003, archaeologists have drawn on satellite imagery to measure the expansion of looting across Iraq. In Peru, and now Jordan, drones are employed to record archaeological sites that are threatened by development or looting. Most recently, a project, Endangered Archaeology, out of Oxford plans to apply similar technologies to map cultural heritage sites that are at risk across the Middle East and North Africa. 

The news of ISIS profiting from the illicit trade in antiquities is not the first suspected link between cultural material and terrorist groups. After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001, a single news story alleged that Mohamed Atta had inquired with a university professor about selling antiquities to purchase an airplane. As the United States subsequently pursued the Taliban, another news story offered an estimate of £18bn on the value of looted cultural artifacts from Afghanistan alone. After U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003, websites of Western government agencies posted multibillion-dollar estimates for the global illicit trade in cultural material. 

The stories and reports naturally sparked interest in learning more about the relationship between antiquities trafficking and funding of terrorist groups, but more than a decade elapsed with few additional anecdotes let alone empirical studies. The lack of corroboration weakened the argument for sponsoring research on the relationship or, more generally, on the threat that violent extremism poses to cultural heritage.

The multibillion-dollar figure, even if accurate, may also be misleading as an indicator of the financial significance to ISIS or other actors who pose a threat to international security.

Firstly, if the estimate is global, then the market for antiquities out of Syria and Iraq is only a fraction of it. Most continents have a history of looting of cultural patrimony. A seminal article by Clemency Coggins in 1969 reported on cultural artifacts that had been illicitly exported from Central America. Since then, news reports and academic studies have identified looting across Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Trafficking from the continents continues to contribute to the global illicit market. 

Secondly, the estimate is based on the market value of antiquities that have been acquired by a collector. That is to say, the price of a cultural artifact increases along a supply chain from looter, to middleman, to dealer, gallery, and/or auction house, to collector. The market size, correspondingly, is different at each point in the chain. 

Thirdly, the role of a player in the market affects the financial gain. The gain at any point in the supply chain depends on the value added. For example, a gallery that vets the authenticity of an antiquity might be able to double the price from "wholesale" to "retail." The resulting gain would be greater than that for a customs agent who accepts a bribe to aid a smuggler or for ISIS, which may simply tax the traffic early on in the chain.

Clearly, the financial aspect as a current threat to security is difficult to assess. But the trafficking also has a long-term consequence, which has equal if not greater ramifications. The future government of Syria may, at some point, call for repatriation of the looted cultural patrimony. As the repatriation cases unfold, the foreign collectors, galleries, and auction houses in question will not only be faced with proving the legitimate provenance of the artifacts but also be tainted by perhaps having had a hand in the financing of political violence and cultural cleansing.

Nemeth directs Cultural Security (www.culturalsecurity.org) and recently published Cultural Security: Evaluating the power of culture in international affairs (Imperial College Press, London).