FBI warns U.S. art dealers about antiquities looted from Syria, Iraq

By Victoria Cavaliere (Reuters) - The FBI on Wednesday urged art dealers in the United States to be careful when buying antiquities from the Middle East, saying there is evidence collectors have recently been offered artifacts plundered by Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq. The looting of ancient artifacts across Iraq and Syria and their sale on the black market has become a source of funding for Islamic State militants, and there is growing concern those items are showing up in the Western marketplace, the FBI said in a press release. "We now have credible reports that U.S. persons have been offered cultural property that appears to have been removed from Syria and Iraq recently,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program. Magness-Gardiner urged collectors and buyers to be vigilant checking importation, provenance and other documents. "What we’re trying to say is, don’t allow these pieces that could potentially support terrorism to be part of the trade," she said. Islamic State, a hardline Sunni Islamist group, has ransacked some of the greatest archaeological sites in northern Iraq and Syria, posting photos and videos of fighters destroying pre-Islamic monuments and temples they consider idolatrous. On Tuesday, the group published photos purporting to show the destruction of the Roman-era Baal Shamin temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, an act the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO has called a war crime. Before the city's capture by Islamic State, Syrian officials said they moved hundreds of ancient statues to safe locations out of concern they would be destroyed by the militants. Last month, the United States handed back to Iraq antiquities it said had been seized in a raid on Islamic State fighters in Syria, saying the retrieval was proof the group was attempting to sell the items to raise cash. The relics included ancient cylindrical stamps, pottery, metallic bracelets and other jewelry. Islamic State fighters have desecrated ancient Assyrian and Graeco-Roman palaces in northern Iraq including the 2,700-year-old Assyrian capital of Khorsabad. Growing concern the trade in plundered artifacts can help finance militants earned them the nickname "blood antiquities" - adapted from the phrase "blood diamond," used to refer to gems that financed fighters in African wars from Angola to Sierra Leone. (Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Toby Chopra)