Art sanctions aim to hit Syria's rich where it hurts

Cultural exchange shouldn't be cut off or?

Published on 9 July 2012

Author(s): The Art Newspaper/Riah Pryor

Type:  Report Issue 237, July-August 2012

A ban on the import of luxury goods includes fine art, collector’s pieces and antiques

The export of art to Syria has been banned by the European Union as part of a luxury-goods embargo confirmed in June. The sanctions, which also cover jewellery and luxury vehicles, are the latest in a string of diplomatic actions against the regime following its continued violence against anti-government protesters.

The move seems to be targeted at the country’s president, Bashar Al-Assad, and his wife, Asma Al-Assad, who have been criticised for maintaining a lavish lifestyle in the face of the ongoing and violent internal conflict. In March, the UK-based Guardian newspaper published private email exchanges between the couple, which showed Asma Al-Assad to be a dedicated internet shopper who spent thousands of dollars on designer goods during the wave of protests in 2011. She attempted to buy works by the Zambian artist Nick Jeffrey, ranging in cost from £5,000 to £10,500, from a London-based dealer. Asma Al-Assad is covered by the sanctions but, as a British national, is able to travel to the UK.

Opinion is divided as to whether cultural property should be tied up with politics. “A ban on art between two countries is always a shame. [It puts] barriers between cultural exchange,” says Marc Mouarkech, the director of the Beirut gallery Espace Kettaneh Kunigk (Tanit). “Sooner or later, Assad will be gone,” says Fatenn Mostafa, the founder of the Cairo-based art advisory and educational platform Art Talks Egypt. “In the long term, cultural exchange is one thing we really shouldn’t be cutting off.”

The First Lady of Syria, Asma Al-Assad, spent thousands of dollars on designer goods during the wave of protests in 2011.jpg
The First Lady of Syria, Asma Al-Assad, spent thousands of dollars on designer goods during the wave of protests in 2011

This is not the first time culture has become embroiled in the outside world’s deteriorating relations with Syria. In May 2011, London’s Royal Academy cancelled a show of Syrian antiquities, supported by Asma Al-Assad and the Syria Heritage Found­ation. A project organised by Syria and the Louvre, again headed by the president’s wife, was also abandoned. “She was proud of Syria’s history and wanted to boost the country’s cultural profile,” says Gaia Servadio, a historian who worked on the Louvre project.

What impact the ban will have on the art trade is debatable. The major private collections of Syrian nationals are rarely kept in the country and the wealthy are known to move their assets, and art collections, abroad. Exports of cultural property from the UK to Syria are moderate, with the value of works exported in 2011 totalling £51,125—a paltry amount compared with the £32.5m-worth of art exported to Qatar in the same period.

This is believed to be the second time that art has been part of a luxury-goods sanction. The majority of the members of the United Nations placed a comparable ban on North Korea in 2007. Nonetheless, “the flow of luxury goods into North Korea remains substantial”, says William Newcomb, a member of the UN Security Council, who has worked in Pyongyang. “Depriving people of grand cars might upset some, but the idea of stopping generals from getting, for example, brandy has always seemed daft to me,” says Jim Hoare, the former head of the British Foreign Office’s North Asia and Pacific Group. He adds that the cultural-goods ban “indicates to me that [the authorities] can’t think of ways of imposing sanctions with real bite”.

The EU is keen to apply pressure by whatever means possible. “Past experience shows that the people we are targeting with sanctions were enjoying luxury goods—our measure also has a symbolic value,” says a spokesman for Catherine Ashton, the head of EU foreign policy. Others feel the situation has gone beyond such actions. “We are not at the stage of symbolic gestures,” Mostafa says. “People are dying… this is the time to act.”

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