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Isis-looted treasures seized en route to Russia

Finnish Customs has seized historical art treasures looted by the Isis terrorist group in Syria that were headed across the southeastern border into Russia.

Tullin virkailija käsittelee Isiksen anastamaa kuvataulua.
A Customs' officer showing one of the seized artworks. The 15th century Ottoman period piece was looted from a shrine in Syria. Image: Yle

The most valuable piece seized by Finnish Customs, while on its way to a collector in Russia, is a decorative ceramic plaque looted from a Syrian shrine that dates to the 1400s.

"There a great deal of archeological material in the Middle East related to humankind's early history that in many ways is irreplaceable," Chief Intendant Jouni Kuurne of Finland's National Board of Antiquities told Yle.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization  UNESCO has been deeply concerned about the destruction of Syrian's world heritage sites and the looting of art treasures for sale to private collectors.

The piece from the Syrian shrine is an exception among recent cases of antiques smuggling being pursued by Finnish Customs.  Most shipments stopped by customs officers this spring have contained more common items collected from around Europe.

"This is a new phenomenon. We have cases under investigation in which items originated in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Norway and France," says Sanna Kuparinen, the head of investigations at Finland's National Board of Customs.

Soviet-period art of interest

Of late, much of the artwork passing through Finland on its way to collectors in Russia is contained in shipments of art and antique items dating from the Soviet period. There are no barriers to these, as long as export permits have been acquired in the countries from which they are shipped.

Finnish Customs believes that the smuggling of antiques is a professionally organized operation. Indications of the professional nature of smuggling cases include documentation falsifying the value of items and attempts to falsify the contents listings of shipments.

"This is an excellent way to convert cash into assets that retain value," points out Sanna Kuparinen.

There are four cases are under investigation. Customs has requested the help of the National Bureau of Investigation in determining the origin of Syrian items.

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The group did not specify how much security training should be extended, but noted that guards need more guidance about the legal prerequisites on the use of physical force.