UNESCO has tried to curb art smuggling through the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The treaty gives its 123 members the right to recover stolen or illegally exported antiquities, and it has led to requests from dealers for provenance of how artifacts were acquired. But just like the Roman statues themselves, certificates of provenance are open to forgery.
Such certificates can be faked "as easily as saying hello," says Bajjaly. "I can do it in two seconds."
A popular technique is to cite the object as originating from a collection belonging to an 18th- or 19th-century collector known to have been interested in antiquities. Such references will rarely be cross-checked, and older collections often lack inventories. Thus, collections of individuals who have been dead for hundreds of years keep expanding over time.
Furthermore, even high-end auction houses don't cite the provenance of all objects in their catalogs. Christie's says it hasn't seen a rise in material from Syria, claiming strict internal policies require any item to be thoroughly researched and subject to provenance checks. In addition, catalogs are widely distributed and available online. As a result of such transparency, it is "extremely unlikely that traffickers would use international auctions to sell illicit material," says Christie's communications head Matthew Paton.
But below the elite dealers, hundreds of smaller dealers are only too happy to sell looted antiquities on the black market. Furthermore, antiques are now also readily available online through a growing number of public auction sites -- including mainstream sites such as eBay, where one can buy antiquities such as Roman coins at the click of a button. More specialized items, like cuneiform tablets, can be found on sites such as artemission.com or through auctions on icollector.com. The provenance and legality of such objects are often murky.
Abu Khader predicts lucrative times ahead. He shows off an entire CD full of pictures of loot ready to sell -- at the right price, of course. And he eagerly awaits the future. "After the war, much more will be coming out of Syria than now, because some people are not able to get the things they find across the border," he explains.
If what happened in Iraq is any barometer for Syria, he might be right. It took five years after the U.S.-led invasion for the international market to be flooded with Iraqi antiquities. But given the growing number of sites being looted throughout Syria, it's clear this process is already under way. As Durham's Cunliffe says, "It will be years before we know the full extent of the looting."