Acting on a tip, the police raided four homes in eastern Bulgaria, looking for contraband that regularly traverses this country on the way to markets in Western Europe and America. In one rusting shed behind an apartment block here, they found a cache of looted antiquities: 19 classical statues and fragments of marble or limestone.
Among them was a square tablet depicting a procession. If genuine, its style would make it neither Roman nor Greek, like the rest, but even older, dating back nearly 5,000 years. Its appearance suggested it came from the ancient Sumerian city of Lagash, in what is today southern Iraq.
The police raid here, in March 2015, was heralded as a rare success against the trafficking of antiquities, a crime that reached new levels as the Islamic State militant group took control of parts of Syria and Iraq, and destroyed and looted ancient sites. Yet it also highlighted the barriers that, dozens of art experts and officials in the United States and Europe say, hamper the fight against the illicit trade.
Laws around the world are weak and inconsistent, and customs enforcement can screen only a portion of what crosses international borders, according to officials and experts in trafficking. Long-established smuggling organizations are practiced in getting the goods to people willing to pay for them, and patient enough to stash ancient artifacts in warehouses until scrutiny dies down. Despite a near-universal outcry over the Islamic State’s actions, few countries have shown interest in imposing new restrictions to curb the booming trade in antiquities, estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year.
“It’s a broken system that ISIS or anyone else, whoever is next, can play into,” said Donna Yates, an archaeologist at the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, referring to the Islamic State by one of its abbreviations.
Officials still do not know how the artifacts ended up in Shumen or whether they passed through Islamic State territory. For every seizure like the one here, many other pieces are believed to reach dealers and buyers in Vienna, Munich, London and New York. Dealers exploit the legal trade in antiquities to move objects that have been looted for years amid the conflicts in Syriaand Iraq, as well as Libya, Yemen and Egypt, officials and experts said.
Few objects have turned up so far that can be traced to the Islamic State’s plunder. While the group is a relative newcomer to the looting, it has allowed it on an industrial scale in territory it controls, taxing excavations to raise money for the caliphate it declared in 2013.
That is why the antiquities seized here in Bulgaria — along with hundreds of pieces intercepted in Turkey, near the border with Syria, and at least one object seized in London and now stored for safekeeping by the British Museum — are viewed as part of a wave that experts expect to flood European and North American markets in coming years.
Satellite photographs have documented thousands of illegal excavations in Syria and Iraq, visible as pockmarks among some of the world’s most important ancient ruins, like Mari and Dura-Europos. Tracking what has been looted from them, though, has proved difficult.
“We’re faced with the largest-scale mass destruction of cultural heritage since the Second World War, and we’re going to have to do something about it,” said France Desmarais, director of programs and partnerships at the International Council of Museums.
The scale of the looting under the Islamic State has prompted many nations to try to stanch the flow, and the revenue, though it is hardly the group’s largest source, given its trade in oil.
Just last month, for example, finance ministers from the 15 countries on the United Nations Security Council pledged to take steps to block the trade in oil and antiquities. In September, the State Department announced that it would offer a $5 million reward for information that disrupts the trade.
The International Council of Museums issued a new “red list” of looted art and antiquities from Libya in December. One for Syria was published in 2013, while the list for Iraq, first issued after the American invasion in 2003, was updated last year.
Still, such efforts have done little to plug gaps in the enforcement of laws against trafficking or to stifle the insatiable demand of the antiquities market. In Germany, like some other countries, privacy laws protect buyers and sellers from scrutiny. The United States has no explicit prohibition on the sale of artifacts from Syria.
Read more: NY Times