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Monuments Men-style military unit formed to stop raiders of the lost art

7 January 2019
Sailors and Royal Marines with a flair for Indiana Jones-style adventure are needed to protect – or recover – ancient treasures in a special Monuments Men-esque unit.

The British Army is forming a 15-strong team of reservists who would be willing to risk life and limb to defend some of the world’s greatest cultural treasures.

It wants reservists from across the three services who are curators, art specialists, archaeologists and investigators by day to volunteer for the new Cultural Property Protection Unit.

Its job will be to return works of art stolen by invasion forces or terrorists, investigate looting, bring smuggling gangs to justice, protect ancient buildings and report on important cultural sites in places where British and allied forces are operating.

Looting and selling antiquities has been proven as a fund-raising method for terrorist groups.

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick RM

“Our staff could find themselves out on an exercise doing operational planning or sitting at a border, checking vehicles for stolen artefacts,” says the unit’s commander – and only member at present – Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, a Gulf War tank veteran-turned-arts dealer and reservist.

“There’s a strong possibility we’ll be working with allies such as the French out in somewhere like Mali where they are trying to prevent antiquities being smuggled out of the country.

The unit – part of the Army’s specialist 77th Brigade which deploys to war-torn and disaster-stricken parts of the globe to provide stability and security alongside other government agencies – has been set up partly in response to the destruction of historic sites by the so-called Islamic State.

Its forces bulldozed the ancient Nimrud palace in Iraq, flattened or blew up most of the mosques in Mosul and destroyed some of the Roman ruins in Palmyra as part of a deliberate campaign against historic and religious sites.

Beyond preserving or recovering some of the world’s most important historic sites or works of art, the aim of the unit is also to stem the flow of money into the hands of terrorists.

As with drug-running in the Middle East, money generated by the illegal sale of artefacts and artwork is known to fund terrorist groups.

“Looting and selling antiquities has been proven as a fund-raising method for terrorist groups,” Lt Col Purbrick explains.

“Part of our job is about preventing ‘threat finance’ – you have an adversary extracting cultural property from the region you are operating in and then, in effect, sending it back at you in the form of bombs and bullets.”

And protecting heritage and culture on the ground can help win the hearts and minds of the local population – as well as ensure tourists returning once conflict ends.

Lt Col Purbrick has identified an Arabic-speaking archaeologist from the Army Reserve and a historic building inspector from the Royal Navy Reserve as potential candidates to join his unit.

“I’m looking for experts in art, archaeology and art crime investigation, leaders in their field who are able to deploy on operations down to the tactical level,” he says.

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