News / Europe

Lucrative Antique Islamic Arts Market Draws Big Money, Criminals

The international market in antique Islamic art is booming, with London and Paris the centers of the trade. A recent sale of a single page from an ancient copy of the Quran made 200,000 euros. But such prices have also brought the unwelcome attention of criminals. 

Cuma Atabay, the chief of Turkey's Historical Foundations, lists the recent thefts of Islamic art. Among them are carpets hundreds of years old and even a mosque door dating back to the 14th century.

Atabay is speaking at an international meeting in Istanbul aimed at combating the growing problem of Islamic art theft.

Listening is William Robinson, director of the Islamic and Carpet Departments of the London-based auction house, Christies. He says with the Gulf States entering the market, prices for Islamic art have gone through the roof.

"The overall turnover in the market has risen hugely. I would take it back to 1997, which is when Qatar entered the market. And since then, the overall trend has been very strongly upward, particularly in the last two or three years. I thinking it could be even 30 or 40 percent a year increase, which is huge," said Robinson.

Stolen artifacts

Such high prices are fueling an increasing market in stolen artifacts, many of which end up in Istanbul's famous and historic Grand Bazaar.

For centuries, the bazaar, with its maze of narrow streets and thousands of shops, has been the place to buy the finest jewelry and carpets and much, much more. But, says Police Chief Ismail Sahin, it also remains a center for illegal activity as well. He heads the city's efforts against the theft and smuggling of Islamic art, most of which he says is destined for Europe.

Sahin says typically, gangs of three or four people steal items from museums or mosques and take them to the Grand Bazaar where there are dealers who have contacts in Europe. He says it is very difficult for to stop because most mosques and even some museums do not have inventories or adequate protection.

Sahin says Istanbul is an international transport hub for the West and Middle East.  Thus, he says, the city is a center not only for Turkish stolen artifacts but also for items coming from strife-ridden areas across the Middle East.

Information key to combating crime

Joachim Gierlich is a former curator at the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. He says information is the key to combating the growing trade in illegal artifacts.

"I believe one only can win the fight if one uses modern technologies, having a very good and complete documentation to know what actually is in the museums and what is in the foundations and so on, and make this accessible,” he said.

Powerful tool

William Robinson of Christies agrees. He says the appearance of auction catalogues on the Internet is proving to be a powerful tool in curtailing the sale of stolen artifacts.

"Oh it's a very serious issue because it's completely against our interests for illegal things to appear on the market, let alone with us.  Because it knocks the whole market. But if we are not aware of theft we are in a much more difficult position. We want owners to have confidence that something they buy from us is not going to be claimed in 30 years," said Robinson.

Robinson draws a parallel with the 1990's, when the growing public awareness finally brought an end to the sale of art taken by the Nazis during World War Two. The battle against this latest illegal trade in Islamic art is expected to be no less intense, especially as the market becomes more lucrative.

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