British Museum 'guarding' looted Syrian artifact

The institution says it is housing a historic artifact that was taken out of Syria and will keep the object until the civil war ends.

Jane Arraf/file
The head of UNESCO says the self-described Islamic State has looted the ancient palace of King Asurnasirpal II in Nimrud, Iraq, seen here in 2008.

Selling ancient artifacts is one of Islamic State's (IS) main sources of income, but at least one looted object is now sitting safely in Britain.

The British Museum says it is guarding a precious artifact that was looted from Syria and it will keep it until the civil war in the country ends.

“We are holding an object we know was illegally removed from Syria and one day it will go back," British Museum director Neil MacGregor told The Times. The interview was published on the paper's website on Friday.

The museum has not revealed which Syrian artifact it is holding.

The Islamic State currently controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq, including some archaeologically-significant cities. In their latest major conquest two weeks ago, they took control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

IS fighters have already destroyed multiple ancient sites and cities, including Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, and the ancient Iraqi cities of Nimrud and Hatra. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed caliphate is also involved in art smuggling.

The group has a double standard when it comes to artifacts. Although it considers ancient art a type of idolatry, it also sees artifacts as a way to earn money. Therefore while destroying irreplaceable artifacts and ancient sites, it also smuggles out and sells smaller objects.

Oil piracy, extortion, and taxation are the other main sources of revenue for Islamic State. International think tank RAND Corporation estimated that IS earned $1.2 billion in 2014. It is not clear how much of this money came from selling artifacts.

While some archeologists and art admirers try to protect ancient heritages within Syria and Iraq, the international community is also trying to protect Middle East antiquities.

In February, the United Nations Security Council accused IS and others of “generating income directly or indirectly in the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items” and banned all trade in antiquities from Syria.

Last week, the United Nations agreed on a non-binding resolution to take steps to thwart and prosecute antiquities smugglers, mainly from Iraq, according to The New York Times. The country's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed Ali Alhakim, estimated that IS was making $100 million annually from selling artifacts.

The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict requires its signatories to protect cultural property in war zones. Over one hundred countries, including the United States, have ratified the treaty. The United Kingdom is not one of them.

But regardless of the treaty, the British Museum is doing its part by keeping one Syrian artifact safe and Mr. MacGregor says the museum is trying to protect other antiquities from conflict zones.

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