Progress in Protecting Stolen Antiquities Is Real — But Challenges Remain

Experts in antiquities, security, and diplomacy, join in the conversation on the next steps to combating antiquities trafficking.

In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorist organizations target ancient relics and sites for loot to finance their operations. In Latin America, drug cartels and other organized crime groups use the antiquities black market to launder money. Across the West, looted artifacts appear in private collections and museums. In the past year, a coordinated effort by governments, NGOs, and the public has made progress tackling this problem. But much more remains to be done.

"We should be stopping any kind of sale of illicit antiquities from supporting terrorism," Deborah Lehr, the chairman and founder of the Antiquities Coalition said Friday at Asia Society in New York. "Whether it's a small industry and it's ten thousand dollars or whether it’s a massive industry and  billions of dollars — it’s a global crime.”

Last year, a task force formed by Asia Society, the Antiquities Coalition, and the Middle East Institute created a framework of recommendations and practices to combat the antiquities black market. On Friday, representatives from various culture groups, diplomatic and security officials, and prominent members of the art and antiquities community convened again to discuss breakthroughs and address new challenges.

“It’s been quite a year in terms of making political progress,” Lehr said. “For the first time the FBI announced that if dealers were found trafficking in known conflict antiquities zones, they could be tried under the terrorism statutes — and rewards were put out for $5 million for information.”

The task force has played an instrumental role in shifting the conversation on the antiquities racketeering issue. What began as a debate on whether terror groups like ISIS were benefiting from cultural looting has now become an expanded global effort to educate the public, shut down source markets, and prosecute criminals.  

The effort has since gained momentum from international government leadership in areas most affected by cultural plundering. Lehr, along with panelist Larry Schwartz, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Middle East affairs, recently attended the Middle East and North Africa Task Force Against Cultural Racketeering meeting in Amman, Jordan, which included the participation of ministerial level representatives from 17 countries — compared to just 10 last year.

The challenge today is to use the momentum gained over the past few months to create plans of action that can be effectively implemented.

“When it comes to moving from tree-hugging to action, there are very specific things I would propose that need to get done,” Schwartz said during the discussion. “Frankly, we’re beginning to do this by adding this issue to the talking points of our senior leaders across the board.”

For the first time, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew brought together finance ministers from UN Security Council nations and added antiquities to the challenges they were focused on in finding solutions to terror financing. The relationship between the illicit antiquities market and terror has also become an issue on the G7 and G8 agendas.

According to Mark Taplin, principal deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the increased coordination between the U.S. government and global law enforcement continues to be the most significant tool for a comprehensive plan to combat looting. Despite these meaningful efforts, however, changes in technology and the evolution of the looting market has made apprehending traffickers more difficult. Technology that allows for the transportation and sale of these items has become a big problem, as the Internet has increasingly become the main channel for antiquities trafficking. 

“In addition to being a specialist in works of art, investigation, and financing, you also need now to be a specialist in cyber crime,” Emmanuel Roux, the special representative of Interpol to the United Nations said, explaining the complexity of working online. 

“We’ve got not only traditional online auction sites, but we also have social media, and darknet channels that are facilitating the flow of these objects," Colette Loll, founder and director Art Fraud Insights, and a member of the task force, added. "So, that’s where we should be focusing our efforts [next].”

As the market becomes increasingly reliant on digital communication, Loll offered an important reminder of the importance of harnessing public knowledge to bring attention to the demand-side of the market. This means publicly addressing how looted goods end up in galleries, museums, or private collections in the West.

“The pre-sale demand is all about market education, and that’s where we need to start,” Loll said of the prevalence of unknowing buyers. “It’s been done very effectively in the ivory trade, and if we look at the as a model, I think we can apply some of those characteristics to the antiquities trade.”

Brigadier General (Ret.) Russell Howard also discussed the need for public diplomacy and mainstream engagement on the issue going forward. Howard described an article that discusses the connection between counterfeit Gucci handbags to the funding of North Korean nuclear weapon development. "How about an advertisement that says 'buying antiquities, illegal, trafficked, looted, antiquities, helps kill children?" he suggested. "Be as graphic as you want, that is the level we need to tell the American public, or the public at large, what happens with this." 


Colette Loll, founder and director of Art Fraud Insights, and Emmanuel Roux, special representative of Interpol to the United Nations, weigh in on the complexities of tracking traffickers in the digital space .

About the Author

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Michelle FlorCruz is a Content Producer at Asia Society. She was previously a reporter for, focusing on stories relating to business and culture in China and other areas of Asia.