Looting? $283 Million Flow of Artifacts to US Revealed

The ancient city of Apamea in Syria is one of of many sites in the Middle East that have been heavily looted and/or destroyed.
The ancient city of Apamea in Syria is one of of many sites in the Middle East that have been heavily looted and/or destroyed. Founded in 300 B.C., the city was full of wealth in ancient times. (Image credit: Photo by Bernard Gagnon, CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported)

Artifacts exported to the United States from Turkey — a country that shares a lengthy border with war-torn Syria and Iraq — soared in the last few years, a Live Science investigation has revealed. 

Documents obtained by Live Science from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that the increase started in the years after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and escalated further after the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Altogether, the documents reveal that since 2003, a total of about $283 million worth of artifacts have been successfully exported from Turkey to the United States. (The resale value of the artifacts could be higher, said a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson.)

Gold coins worth $26 million and non-gold coins worth $15 million account for some of the artifacts. The makeup of the rest of the shipments is unknown, with documents saying that the contents are more than 100 years old and were meant for consumption rather than for display in any museum. Many of the artifacts were shipped to New York City, which is home to numerous auction houses, antiquities dealers and art galleries. It's not clear how many of the artifacts were looted. [7 Stunning Archaeological Sites in Syria]

Between 1993 and 2002 only about $68 million worth of artifacts were exported from Turkey to the United States, the documents show. The last time a surge in artifact exports occurred was in 1992 when, in the aftermath of the first Gulf war and the breakup of the Soviet Union (a country that Turkey shared a border with), more than $85 million worth of artifacts were exported from Turkey to the United States in a single year.

Rampant looting

Looting soared in Iraq and Syria after the wars started and is visible on satellite imagery in both countries. Numerous academic studies and media reports have found that some of the looted artifacts were smuggled to Turkey before being sent to other countries. Those reports and studies also show that organized crime and terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, have profited from the looting.

The refugee crisis and instability in the Middle East has turned "southern Turkey [into] something of a gangsters' paradise for human trafficking, weapons trafficking and all forms of contraband," said Michael Danti, academic director of the American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives, a project that is monitoring the looting and destruction of archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq. [Photos: Damage to Syrian Ruins Seen from Space]

Golden shipments

Shipments of gold coins have helped drive the increase. Between 1989 and 2002, only 2.5 lbs. (1.1 kilograms) of antique gold coins were exported from Turkey to the U.S., the documents said. This number jumped to 57 lbs. (26 kg) between 2003 and 2010, and then to 112 lbs. (51 kg) between 2011 and July 2016.

While the precise number of gold coins shipped since 2003 is not specified, the documents show that the coins weigh 169 lbs. (77 kg), which would be equal to more than 13,000 modern-day American quarters.

What's behind the surge?

Coins have been minted in the Middle East for about 2,500 years, and Danti said that looters in Syria and Iraq have been targeting these artifacts at sites that date to within that time period. From satellite imagery, "we see a lot of shallow digging in sites that have substantial late occupations [within the last 2,500 years] near the surface," Danti said. "We have pictures of looters using metal detectors at those sites. We have eyewitness accounts."

"The reasons that coins are being specifically looted is that they have high liquidity," Danti said. "They have a well-developed market, they are easy to smuggle, and it's easy to determine what the wholesale value might be for an individual coin or a lot of coins."

Danti added that "we have information on what Islamic State [also known as ISIS or ISIL] was doing in the last year, which was specifically looting for metal objects, particularly coins, and other groups were doing the same."

In addition to looting, refugees crossing the border into Turkey may be selling antique gold coins that have been in their families for decades Danti said.

The instability of local currencies in the Middle East may also be driving people to convert their money into gold, said Amr Al-Azm, a professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, who formerly taught at the University of Damascus in Syria.

Al-Azm explained that some of the bullion used in the Middle East today consists of coins that date back over 100 years to the days of the Ottoman Empire (which flourished from 1299 to 1921). Some of these Ottoman coins have been in use continuously for over a century and are not necessarily looted from an archaeological site, said Al-Azm. People could be sending this bullion to the United States for safekeeping, he said.

More information about the date and origin of the coins could shed light on whether the artifacts were illegally brought into the U.S., both Danti and Al-Azm said. Privacy laws prevented Live Science from obtaining more precise information on the date of the coins; however, the census documents show that the value that importers attached to the gold coins was far more than the coins' weight in gold. 

Gold prices have varied considerably since 2003, when the export increase began. However at today's price ($1,318 per troy ounce), 169 lbs. of gold would be worth about $3.3 million. The importers declared the coins' worth at almost $26 million, the documents showed. 

Turkey is not the only country seeing a large increase in artifact exports. In August, Live Science published an investigation showing that $143 million worth of artifacts had been exported from Egypt to the United States since Egypt's 2011 revolution, an increase that was also driven in part by an increase in gold coins.

U.S. Census Bureau documents have also revealed suspicious artifact shipments coming directly from Syria and Iraq to the United States. One shipment was sent from Iraq to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in August 2013 and had a declared value of $3.5 million. It was listed simply as "antiques" that were more than 100 years old.

Attempts by Live Science to find out what that Puerto Rico shipment contained were unsuccessful.

Original article on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.