Purchasing Syrian Antiquities in the Wake of ISIL - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Purchasing Syrian Antiquities in the Wake of ISIL

Purchasing Syrian Antiquities in the Wake of ISIL

In May 2015, The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (“ISIL”) captured and destroyed Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most significant historical sites from the Ancient Era in Syria.1 The destruction has been decried as a devastating loss of culture and a sad demise to the legacy of Palmyra’s most revered queen, Zenobia.2  While the destruction of the temple was apparent after Palmyra’s recapture by government forces in March of 2016, there are reports that many statues and pieces from the temple actually survived and are being peddled on the black market.3 The rise of the antiquities black market is the most tragic aspect of the looting of ancient sites, such as Palmyra, because the buyers of these now rare artifacts are unwittingly funding the ISIL war machine.  Purchasing Syrian artifacts in the wake of this event is both legally and morally an unsound decision.

American law recognizes through the National Stolen Property Act that selling stolen artifacts from other countries in the U.S. is a crime.4 Combined with foreign nations’ cultural heritage laws, lawyers are able to overcome the “international norm that mere illegal export does not provide a cause of action in the courts of another country.”5 Typically, cultural heritage laws consider the state, from which an artifact was stolen, the rightful owner.6 As a result, if Syria were to hunt down these artifacts pilfered from Palmyra, Syria would most likely have a strong claim to recover them.  With such a strong possibility of losing both the artifact and the money spent on it, western private collectors and institutions are making an illogical choice by buying stolen artifacts.

The purchase of Iraqi tablets by Hobby Lobby is a notable example of what would happen in a lawsuit to reclaim artifacts of antiquity. Hobby Lobby was prosecuted for buying more than 5,500 artifacts that were looted from Iraq in 2010.7 In July of 2017, these artifacts were returned Iraq and Hobby Lobby was required to pay a fine of $3 million.8 Crucially, experts had previously warned Hobby Lobby that such artifacts have likely been looted, considering the numerous artifacts reported stolen since the 1990s.9 Therefore, any American collector and museum should be on notice after the highly publicized destruction of Palmyra that any Syrian artifacts allegedly excavated in the last few years could have been looted.

There are strong legal arguments against purchasing Syrian artifacts without extensive research into provenance to ensure they were legally obtained.  However, there are strong ethical reasons to refrain from such purchases as well.  The United Nations have determined that the sale of looted artifacts from captured ISIL territory is one of ISIL’s most lucrative endeavors.10 Collectors, no matter how noble their intentions may be, are supplying the funds that enable the slaughter and terrorism committed by ISIL. These collectors have a moral responsibility to the historical eras they so revere to mitigate the agony of the descendants of those eras.


  1. Palmyra: Islamic State Locks Down Ancient City’s Museum, BBC (May 23, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32859347 [https://perma.cc/7KWL-3V2B].

  2. Stephen Daly Distinti, Palmyra: Queen of the East, Eidolon (July 23, 2015), https://eidolon.pub/palmyra-queen-of-the-east-eb4c2412fadf [https://perma.cc/32LJ-E39K].  See also, Will Worley, Palmyra: Photographer’s Powerful Before and After Photos Show City’s Destruction at Hands of ISIS, Independent (April 2, 2016, 11:17 BST), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/palmyra-syria-photos-new-palmyra-photos-show-devastation-of-artefacts-ruined-by-isis-a6964766.html [https://perma.cc/HK8F-YXE6].

  3. Rachel Shabi, Looted in Syria – and sold in London: the British antiques shops dealing in artefacts smuggled by Isis, The Guardian (July 3, 2015 10:55 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/03/antiquities-looted-by-isis-end-up-in-london-shops [https://perma.cc/W8WJ-EU4K].

  4. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 2314, 2315 (2013).

  5. Kelly Hill, Note, The Problem of Auction Houses and Illicit Antiquities: A Call for a Holistic Solution, 51 Tex. Int’l L.J. 337, 351 (2016)

  6. Id.

  7. Alan Feuer, Hobby Lobby Agrees to Forfeit 5,500 Artifacts Smuggled out of Iraq, New York Times (July 5, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/05/nyregion/hobby-lobby-artifacts-smuggle-iraq.html [https://nyti.ms/2tNDe4S].

  8. Id.

  9. Verified Complaint In Rem at 10-11, United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty (450) Ancient Cuneiform Tablets et al., No. 17-CV-3980 (E.D.N.Y. June 21, 2017).

  10. See Martin Chulov, How an Arrest in Iraq Revealed Isis’s $2bn Jihadist Network, The Guardian (June 15, 2014, 4:06 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/15/iraq-isis-arrest-jihadists-wealth-power [https://perma.cc/3NWS-XVJT].

Kara Krakower

Kara Krakower is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. She holds a B.A. from Barnard College in Ancient Studies where she furthered her passion for the ancient world.