The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has released a Red List (“Liste Rouge”) for Iraqi artifacts that are being looted and sold on the black market, particularly by ISIS. ICOM maintains several lists that are frequently updated and are organized by country of origin. The lists serve as a guide for dealers, customs officials, collectors and museum professionals to identify items that may have been stolen or exported illegally from their country of origin. You can access their database here. The Iraqi list spans thousands of years from the Mesopotamian era through the Ottoman era (and don’t forget that the Ottoman Empire lasted until 1918).
Cultural organizations of all sizes should be aware and make use of these lists when considering an acquisition from one of these regions. Ironically, savvy dealers and collectors, who are aware that the items in their possession have been illegally removed, are targeting smaller museums in order to off-load their ill-gotten gain when other avenues become unavailable. The feeling amongst this group of people (one that is not exactly incorrect), is that the smaller places will not have the staff or the education to do a proper provenance search, or that such places will not have the budget to hire professionals to determine the provenance of the item in question. They further gamble that smaller institutions do not have the proper policies in place to prevent the acquisition of looted items. For example, I once worked with a board where, despite there being a proper collections acquisition policy, the president frequently ignored the policy and accepted whatever struck his fancy. Not only was this a serious breach of his fiduciary duty of care, but it was also a breach on the part of the other board members by allowing him to persist in his behavior. Such behavior could lead not only to an investigation by the state Attorney General, but to criminal charges both in America and in the artifact’s country of origin. (And if you don’t believe me, just ask Marion True.)
The Red Lists are an important tool for organizations of all sizes that deal with antiquities. The advent of the internet has raised the level of due diligence that organizations must meet in order to accept new acquisitions (or to buy and sell antiquities). And smaller institutions can no longer assume that this is a problem for [Insert city name] Museum of Fine Art.