Focus on: The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, new opportunity for the illicit trafficking of antiquities?

In 1921, under the supervision of Stalin, then High Commissioner for Nationalities, the autonomous oblast of Nagorny Karabakh, located in southwestern Azerbaijan, populated mainly by Armenians, was attached to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, not without causing some inter-ethnic tensions.

At the end of the 1980s, despite Glasnost (Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of opening up and increasing individual liberties), and despite the wishes of many popular Armenian personalities, members of the Russian intelligentsia, this enclave in the Caucasus was not reunited with Armenia.

From February 1988 to May 1994, this separatist region, the size of a French department, was involved in an armed conflict opposing the Armenians of the enclave, allied with the Republic of Armenia, to the Republic of Azerbaijan. A temporary ceasefire brought an end to hostilities. However, despite various attempts at international mediation (OSCE Minsk Group of France, Russia and the United States), tensions between the parties remained high. Moreover, numerous skirmishes regularly reminded the international community that the situation remained as worrying as ever and that the zone remained a veritable powder keg.

From 12 July 2020, new clashes took place between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces, resulting in several hundred casualties. Turkey, a country bordering Armenia and supporting Azerbaijan in a strategy of expanding its influence, is suspected of being the instigator of this new conflict. Several hundred mercenaries from Syrian armed groups, paid by Turkey, are said to be present in this disputed region. Russia, under the aegis of which a first ceasefire was concluded last October 10, seemed for its part to timidly support Armenia and try to put an end to the conflict.

Azerbaijan and Armenia accused each other of bombing urban areas, even outside the disputed separatist territory, which could lead to an extension of the conflict. In this context, the destruction of heritage sites seemed inevitable. A historic Armenian cathedral near Stepanakert, capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, was partially destroyed.

On November 9, Azerbaijan announced the capture of the city of Shushi. The following day, at the instigation of Russia, the parties announced the signing of a ceasefire, obliging them to maintain the positions they occupied. This agreement thus marks the military victory of Azerbaijan and consecrates a territorial loss for the separatist republic. In order to keep the peace for at least five years, the agreement also provides for the deployment of Russian troops on the front line, as well as along the corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenian territory.

As has been observed for several years due to the multiplication of armed conflicts in the Near and Middle East, the links between archaeology and geopolitics have taken on a new dimension in recent years. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict does not seem to have escaped this trend. The protection of places of worship, ruins, and endangered archaeological sites in this region has been instrumentalized for political purposes.

The small separatist republic is strewn with archaeological remains and heritage sites that were being excavated before this new conflict. Thus, important archaeological sites such as the ancient city of Tigranakert of Artsakh (founded under the reign of Tigran the Great between 95 and 55 B.C. and a major site of primitive Christianity), the Paleochristian troglodyte monastic complex of Khatchenag Sweden (V-VIIth century), or the Paleochristian site of Amaras, may have attracted the covetousness of archaeo-traffickers or opportunists.

Azerbaijan, on its side, is also a territory with a rich cultural heritage which considers Nagorno-Karabakh as the cradle of Azerbaijani culture. Some of its representatives have recently stated that the policy of aggression carried out by Armenia against Azerbaijan was also aimed at its cultural heritage and the identity of its people [1].

From the outset, this conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis raised fears of the destruction of heritage sites, but also of archaeological looting, likely to feed the legal art market with objects that are smuggled through the smuggling channels. The future will tell us whether this fear was well-founded.

It should be noted that before arriving at their new unscrupulous owners, looted antiquities and other artifacts usually undertake long journeys through porous borders and various storage sites. These objects are often accompanied by forged documents that are valuable assets for extra- or intra-Community circulation, as well as for sale on the legal market.

It should also be noted that the financial proceeds of this form of illicit trafficking are used to irrigate various economic circuits and then to finance criminal or subversive activities.

Antique galleries and public auction houses, particularly in Europe, are naturally exposed to the risks of marketing archaeological objects of illicit origin. Their legal managers, experts and other experts, must therefore be attentive to the provenance of the objects and implement the necessary due diligence. The International Code of Ethics for Dealers in Cultural Property [2], as well as the Code of Ethics of the European Confederation of Art Experts (CEDEA) [3] constitute fundamental reference points that are more than ever useful to these professions.

In France, art market professionals such as antique dealers, managers of voluntary sales operators, public or ministerial officials, as well as the experts who assist them in the description, presentation, appraisal and historiography of objects, are subject to strictly defined legal obligations. These have no other purpose than to avoid or limit any form of illicit traffic. In this respect, the market players are responsible.

The Conseil d’Orientation de la Lutte contre le Blanchiment de capitaux et le financement du terrorisme (COLB) has already raised awareness of the risks incurred by certain professionals. Its public report of October 2019 recalled that the art sector is one of the most vulnerable, due to the presence of opaque storage spaces and an unfavorable geopolitical context.

Unfortunately, players in the art market do not always respect these obligations, given the considerable financial interests at stake. Recent court cases, widely reported in the French and international press, have just reminded us of this.

It therefore seems important to increase vigilance now in an economic sector where certain actors, supposedly adhering to the moral and ethical values of heritage protection, could be tempted to fail in their obligations and thus allow the introduction on the legal market of objects looted in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.


Stéphane BLUMEL
Cercle K2, Art and heritage group.


[1] Information meeting organized on October 28, 2020 at the ADA University in Baku, for representatives of the media and the foreign diplomatic corps.

[2] Adopted by the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation during its tenth session, January 1999 and approved by the 30th General Conference of UNESCO, November 1999.

[3] Adopted in 2003 by 3 French associations of experts, setting out the rights and duties of the Expert, and the sanctions resulting from their violation.