Embargo on art and luxury in Syria

Damas, 24 July 2012, Art Media Agency (AMA).

The newspaper The Artnewspaper looked into the management of Syrian art in time of civil war. The export of art to Syria has been banned by the European Union. Similarly, an embargo on luxury objects has been set up in June. These sanctions, which also cover luxury vehicles and jewels, are the latest measures in a series of diplomatic measures against the regime following the violence it has displayed against anti-government protesters.

This decision seems to mainly apply to the country’s president, Bashar Al-Assad, and his wife, Asma Al-Assad, who have been criticised for maintaining an opulent lifestyle despite the crisis state affecting the country. In March, the newspaper The Guardian, based in the United Kingdom, has published private mail exchanges between Bashar Al-Assad and his wife, showing that the president’s wife is a dedicated online buyer. Indeed, she spent several thousand dollars in 2011.

She attempted to purchase works by Zambian artist Nick Jeffrey, works whose prices ranged from £5,000 to £10,500 from a dealer located in London. Although Asma Al-Assad is covered by the sanctions, nothing prevents her from travelling to the United Kingdom as she is a British national. Opinions differ as to whether cultural property and politics should be linked.

However, some dare to express their opinion, such as Marc Mouarkech, director of the Beirut gallery Espace Kettaneh Kunigk. He stated his opinion in The Artnewspaper: “A ban on art between two countries is always a shame. [It puts] barriers between cultural exchange.”

This is not the first time culture gets tangled in deteriorating relations between Syria and the outside world. 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, also supervised by the president’s wife, was also cancelled. According to historian Servadio Gaia, who worked on the Louvre’s project, “She was proud of Syria’s history and wanted to boost the country’s cultural profile”.

This embargo will have an impact on the art market. The major private collections of Syrian nationals are rarely kept in the country while wealthy people are known for moving their assets abroad. Exports of cultural property from the United Kingdom towards Syria are moderate. In 2011, the value of exported works amounted to £51,125, a derisory sum when compared to the amount of works exported to Qatar during the same period, £32.5m