A team of researchers from the University of Chicago, gathered under the banner of MANTIS (Modelling the Antiquities Trade in Iraq and Syria), has produced an estimation of the income from the underground art market from which the Islamic State draws part of its earnings, estimated at between $4 and 7 million.
The Fertile Crescent region, home to humanity’s first complex societies, overflows with ancient treasures that rouse the interest of anthropologists and collectors. Interest that is exploited by the Islamic State that organises archaeological digs on territories under its control in order to sell antique artefacts and benefit from significant financial gains. Like all underground markets, it is impossible to accurately quantify the extent of the phenomenon, and transactions always take place behind closed doors. On the other hand, it is difficult to ascertain whether a piece has been pillaged or stolen or placed on the market illegally. The interdisciplinary project led by the University of Chicago shows that the Islamic State has developed an entire system for selling ancient artefacts. It organises archaeological digs whose booty is assessed by its own experts and then placed on the market, namely via Turkey, with tax averaging at 20 %. MANTIS researchers analyse the whole chain, and not just the trade itself, thus enabling more precise estimation of the reality of the phenomenon. In this way, illegal trade in the region gathers three players: looters, the Islamic State and finally dealers. Most stolen or looted pieces are targeted at auction houses that guarantee greater opacity in the provenance of certain pieces.
The situation also feeds fantasies about the Islamic State and its power, as well as the art market whose reality is hidden behind the astronomical sales relayed by the media. The antiquities market is imbued with mysticism, like certain treasures about which nothing is known and whose muteness forces us to speak in their place. The market is a fiction, and this fiction does not facilitate the rationalisation of a phenomenon prone to chimeras. Ambiguity allows imagination to take over, and this is what governments play on in order to draw attention and justify certain actions. The aim of this study is to reach better understanding about this trade in order to work out adequate long-term solutions.