The District’s top federal prosecutor on Thursday took a new approach in the battle to cut sales of antiquities stolen by the Islamic State by filing a civil action to try to recover looted items.
The lawsuit, filed in Washington, marks the first time the U.S. Justice Department has gone to court to seize cultural artifacts the Islamic State holds or once held. The filing is intended to alert art dealers, auction houses and other potential buyers that the government will go after the items, including precious objects that appeared in photographs found during a 2015 U.S. Special Operations raid in Syria.
The case “serves as a warning to those who traffic in precious antiquities and who seek to profiteer from ISIL’s exploitation of the cultural heritage of areas under its control,” U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips of the District said in a statement.
The government action seeks the forfeiture of four objects dated to as early as 330 B. C: a gold ring from Deir al-Zour, Syria; two gold Roman-era coins featuring emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius; and a stone carving from northern Syria.
The objects were identified in a trove of photographs and documents captured in the first Delta Force ground raid in eastern Syria in May 2015, which resulted in the death of its target, militant leader Abu Sayyaf. That July, the United States returned hundreds of objects recovered in the raid to Iraq.
It is not known where the four items cited in the lawsuit are, but photographs and documents found in the raid displayed the pieces in a fashion customarily used to present goods for sale on the international market, the United States alleges. At least one was bought in U.S. dollars, the legal action states.
The lawsuit was brought under a U.S. law that subjects all assets of designated terrorist organizations to forfeiture.
The new legal tack comes amid a growing international push to counter black-market trading of historical treasures from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
U.S. officials said that other records recovered show how the Islamic State created a sophisticated bureaucratic system for extracting wealth from heritage sites across the Fertile Crescent region — a cradle of human civilization with finds dating to 9,000 B.C.
Sayyaf ran the group’s oil operations in the area but also referred to himself in documents as president of the group’s Ministry of Natural Resources Antiquities Department, the FBI said. Records show that the group awarded excavation permits and receipts of collections under its letterhead, the FBI said.
The group allegedly directed members to steal, sell and transport archeological objects and to extort and threaten potential competitors.
While Islamic State militants have provoked a global outcry by destroying ancient monuments they say are idolatrous or predate Islam, the effort to quietly profit from smaller items has fed into a wider trade of pillaged artifacts.
Some art experts have said the pursuit of commercial traffickers has been hampered by the ease of generating fake documents purporting to show the ownership history of disputed items.
Because of the role of the objects in financing terrorism, the United Nations, international cultural organizations and scholars have stepped efforts to target the trade.
Last year, the State Department set a $5 million reward for information that could disrupt ransacking, for example, and the FBI has expanded its National Stolen Art File to warn potential buyers of items that could be subject to civil forfeiture claims.