Think Tank Tackles “Out-of-Control” Internet Antiquities Market

In a recent case brought by the U.S. government, American chain store Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit $3 million dollars and 5000 antiquities, which it had illegally smuggled into the United States from Iraq. Now reports are also surfacing that Hobby Lobby used eBay to help build its suspect collection of artifacts—which will form the basis of the “Museum of the Bible” set to open in Washington later this year. In light of this growing scandal, the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank is tackling the online marketplace in ancient art.

In its latest policy brief, Dr. Neil Brodie examines how best to protect businesses and consumers from the skyrocketing internet market, which he warns “presents a clear and present danger to the survival of the world’s cultural heritage.” Moreover, he cautions that such e-commerce is putting both companies and good faith purchasers at risk of unknowingly facilitating criminal activity, or even funding violent extremist organizations like Daesh (ISIS). Brodie proposes a number of practical solutions aimed at raising consumer awareness and introducing workable regulation, which would encourage the emergence of a legitimate trade, while ridding the internet of its scourge of trafficked and faked antiquities.

Dr. Neil Brodie is presently Senior Research Fellow on the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project at the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology, and a member of the Trafficking Culture project. His policy brief follows others by attorney Ricardo St. Hilaire and professor Lawrence Rothfield. The Antiquities Coalition launched its Think Tank in November 2016 to explore innovative solutions to pressing challenges in cultural heritage, working with distinguished specialists from the public and private sectors.

You can find Dr. Brodie’s executive summary and link to the complete policy brief PDF here.

Getting Dirty with Neil Brodie

Neil Brodie is a Senior Research Fellow on the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project at the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology, and a member of the Trafficking Culture project. He has published widely on issues concerning the market in cultural objects, with more than fifty papers and book chapters devoted to the subject.


What is the one world heritage site that you think everyone should see in their lifetime?

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. No contest. Or the Empire State Building. Actually do they count as world heritage sites? If not, Liverpool, which is still I think a world heritage site. (See following question).

If you could have lived in any era in any civilization, when and where would it have been?

I grew up in 1960s Liverpool and lived through Beatlemania. I think that is as good as it gets. You had to be there.

What attracted you to your profession? 

Usual small boy stuff – dinosaurs. Then the sad realisation that dinosaurs are not archaeology. Adult moment was visiting Minoan sites on Crete while reading Homer’s Iliad. I know the Minoans were not at Troy, but from this point in time the Minoans and Mycenaeans all look a bit bronze-agey samey. Anyhow, Idomeneus was there with his 80 shiploads of Cretans, so that counts surely? I kind of drifted into illicit antiquities work because I thought it was something that needed to be done properly and that I could it better than the people around me. 

What is your most treasured possession?

Ha ha. Can I say, my wife? Not a possession obviously, but most treasured part of my life.

What is something that few people know about you?

I am twenty-third in line to the British crown. Not even the queen knows that.

Cultural Memoranda of Understanding: An Important Diplomatic Tool for Protecting Heritage

By Deborah Lehr

Crossposted from the Huffington Post 

As the world’s largest art market, the United States is the premier destination for the legitimate trade in art and antiquities—but also for its darker counterpart—the illicit trade.

Since the Arab Spring triggered organized looting and trafficking throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco and others have voiced their frustration over the unregulated sale of their heritage in the United States and the difficulty in halting this illicit trade.

Fortunately, the U.S. State Department has now taken a proactive approach to educating countries about what steps they can take to better ensure that looted antiquities do not enter the United States.

The best tool in their diplomatic arsenal is the cultural memorandum of understanding (MOU). The United States has the authority to enter such agreements imposing import restrictions on designated archaeological and ethnological material coming into the country through the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, which is based on the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. These MOUs have benefits for all parties.

Despite their heritage being under siege since 2011, only one MENA country has signed a cultural heritage agreement with the United States—the Arab Republic of Egypt. But that is soon to change, we hope.

The government of Libya has submitted a request for the U.S. government to restrict imports of their patrimony. The Cultural Property Advisory Committee—which counsels the State Department on matters of heritage—will hear arguments on July 19-20 regarding whether the Libyans’ request holds merit.

These agreements are an effective tool in limiting the illegal trade while promoting cultural exchanges. And given the crisis that Libya is facing, we urge the Committee to make an expeditious decision.

 The recent case against arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby for the illegal import of over 5000 ancient artifacts from Iraq is just one high profile example of why these agreements are needed.

While technically not an MOU, after the looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003, Congress passed legislation for Iraq to provide protections similar to those a cultural agreement would grant. Could it be because of these import restrictions that Hobby Lobby falsified their shipping documents to indicate that the country of origin was Turkey—with whom we do not have an agreement? For a company with significant experience in importing products for its craft business, it seems like more than a “rookie mistake.”

The intent of these agreements is not to halt the legitimate trade. As long as the importer or the purchaser has a viable export license from the country of origin, or proof that an artifact left it before the import restrictions were implemented, and then declares the import on shipping documents appropriately, the artifact may be brought into the country legally.

But with violent extremist organizations increasingly using conflict antiquities to fund terrorism, the U.S. government should be aggressively enforcing its existing rules and regulations to ensure that our market is not a source of financing for these deadly acts. We hope—and expect —to see more MENA countries taking advantage of these existing tools to help protect our shared heritage.

In the meantime, buyers should also beware. There is much that they can do to prevent themselves from suffering Hobby Lobby’s fate. Use the checklist here before purchasing any antiquities, especially from countries in conflict.

Hobby Lobby exposes UAE-Israel antiquities trade

Hobby Lobby exposes UAE-Israel antiquities trade

Lawsuit against US-based arts and craft retailer highlights UAE’s rise as a global centre for illegal antiquities. 

12 July, 2017


Washington, DC – A complaint alleging gross theft of Iraq’s cultural heritage filed against Hobby Lobby, a US-based arts and craft retailer, highlights the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) rise as a global centre for illegal antiquities traffic and cooperation between UAE and Israeli dealers on the black market.

Last week, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3m fine to settle a federal lawsuit that accused it of buying smuggled ancient Iraqi artefacts that were shipped under false documentation.

According to the complaint filed by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) in New York, Hobby Lobby President Steven Green and a consultant travelled to the UAE in July 2010 to view more than 5,500 artefacts, largely from Iraq, for purchase.

Four people whose names were withheld – three from Israel and one from the UAE – were the vendors.

There’s “a lot of business that flows between the UAE and Israel” in terms of illicit trade of cultural heritage, Dr Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist, professor at Shawnee State University, told Al Jazeera.

Israel has long been a gateway for illegal artefacts sold to the West, Azm explained. The country has lax laws on the sale of antiquities and its favourability in Europe and the US gives it “ease of access to markets”.

The UAE has recently become a hub for black market artefacts because of increased demand in the Gulf and a “well-established” class of activity in the state, including “smuggling and contraband”, Azm said.

“That’s probably why these connections exist.”

Among the 5,500 items examined, there were more than 1,500 tablets and 500 bricks adorned with cuneiform, the earliest known writing system, which was invented by Sumerians who lived in modern-day southern Iraq.

These objects were intended for the Green’s Museum of the Bible, a private museum in Washington, DC that is set to open in November.

READ MORE: The antiquities looting crisis in the Middle East

Imports from Iraq have been under various limitations since the 1990s. The US invasion in 2003 heightened international concerns of looted items, and the US government has issued several import restrictions on Iraqi archaeological goods.

The two Israeli dealers claimed the artefacts were from a third Israeli’s private collection and had been purchased in “local markets” in the 1960s. But an expert hired by Hobby Lobby informed the buyers that these objects were “likely from Iraq”, the complaint says.

In spite of the laws and warnings, Green signed off on a $1.6m purchase of the artefacts in December 2010. Payments were made to the Israeli dealers, including the third from whose private collection the artefacts came, the UAE dealer and two others.

About 3,000 clay bullae, small balls of clay pressed with seals as an ancient form of documentation, and 450 tablets covered in cuneiform were “shipped by express post from the UAE and Israel” to Hobby Lobby’s headquarters in Oklahoma over a number of years, the complaint states.

Israel’s lax laws

Morag Kersel, an archaeologist who focuses on the eastern Levant region and traces artefacts from the Dead Sea plans of present-day Israel and occupied Palestine, told Al Jazeera that many aspects of the deal between Hobby Lobby and the UAE-Israeli dealers suggested the items “weren’t legal, they had to somehow be laundered”.

Israel’s laws regarding the sale of ancient items made it easy to find the cultural heritage of the Middle East for sale in shops across the country. Licensed dealers could sell artefacts unearthed before Israel’s 1978 antiquities law with no trouble.

Kersel said Mesopotamian items could be found in “any of the licensed shops” before the Israel Antiquities Authority cracked down on the goods in 2015.

“At the time, it seemed strange. But also, who knew? Maybe it had more to do with this case than we knew at the time,” Kersel said.

Hobby Lobby has been under investigation in this case since 2011, according to reports. The complaint details that in September 2011, the retailer received a package of 1,000 bullae from the Israeli dealers with an Israeli export licence that falsely declared the items’ country of origin as Israel.

WATCH: TALK TO AL JAZEERA: Iraq and the art of war

The export licence was another cause of concern for Kersel, as it “must have been issued by an Israeli [government official]”, she said.

Deborah Lehr, the chairwoman of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at DC’s George Washington University, further stressed that Israel’s laws and stance towards antiquities dealing make Israeli vendors good partners for illicit dealers.

Items “can easily be laundered through the country’s ‘legal’ market and then ‘legally’ exported,” Lehr told Al Jazeera. “These pieces can then travel anywhere in the world, with a paper trail that appears to be legitimate.”

‘No one believes that’

For Hobby Lobby President Green, legitimacy is important. The company has long based its business model around what is says are Christian values, including closing on Sundays so employees can attend church. It also won a Supreme Court case in which it refused to provide birth control in its healthcare plans.

The Greens are Evangelicals, a sect of Christianity that serves as a bastion of support for Israel in the US. Green’s Museum of the Bible has even developed a “Bible curriculum” for Israeli schools.

Hobby Lobby released a statement saying it had made “some regrettable mistakes” but never bought goods from “dealers in Iraq or from anyone who indicated that they acquired items from that country”.

Azm, the archaeologist and Shawnee university professor, said Hobby Lobby’s claims that it was a mistake are “spurious. No one believes that.”

OPINION: ISIL and the history of destroying history

Hobby Lobby has given hundreds of high-value historic items to the museum.

According to tax filings from 2013, 526 historical artefacts at a “fair market value” of $52,294,000 were donated to the museum. A 2012 filing shows a single artefact valued at more than $23m was donated.

The fact that the corporation has acquired so much cultural heritage and has a history of using illicit means to do so worries Azm.

That, coupled with the fact that the US government chose to impose a $3m fine in a civil case and withheld the identities of the smugglers, calls into question attempts to stop the trade.

Despite the efforts of academics and organisations, “there’s almost nothing in terms of criminal cases going to court”, Azm said.

Al Jazeera asked the DOJ if it planned to pursue criminal charges in the case, whether against Hobby Lobby or the black-market antiquities dealers.

The DOJ declined to comment.

PDF of article here

Global Leaders Meet to Discuss Countering Violent Extremism

Halting Illicit Trade in Conflict Antiquities A Priority

WASHINGTON D.C., July 10, 2017—The U.S. government will host the Global Coalition Against Daesh (ISIS) from July 11–13 to coordinate international efforts to fight the violent extremist organization—including their sources of terrorist financing.

The Antiquities Coalition calls on the 72-member Global Coalition to ensure that prevention of the looting and illicit trade in conflict antiquities—the proceeds of which are used to finance war and terror—remain a core topic on the agenda.

“The Middle East and North Africa, where these violent extremist organizations flourish, is home to hundreds of thousands of ancient sites where civilization first developed,” said Deborah Lehr, Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition.  “Daesh has actively encouraged looting of these archaeological sites, and any financing derived from their sale is too much when it comes to funding terrorism.”

A 2015 raid by U.S. special forces on Abu Sayyaf, the so-called Chief Financial Officer of Daesh, uncovered evidence of the organization’s systematic approach to antiquities looting and trafficking. The discovery confirmed that the sale of antiquities was being used as a significant source of financing for Daesh, in addition to sale of oil and kidnapping.

As the Antiquities Coalition has warned, “homegrown” terrorists in Europe are also allegedly using the trade in conflict antiquities to finance their attacks. The French-language weekly Paris Match has already exposed clear links between cultural racketeering and terrorist financing in Belgium—including the violent extremist network responsible for the deadly Brussels attacks on March 22, 2016. Just the sale of one artifact can fund terrorist activity on the scale seen there, as well as in London, Paris, and beyond.

Conflict antiquities from the Middle East and North Africa region have been uncovered by law enforcement in all the major art and antiquities markets globally, including the United States. In fact, the FBI has warned the U.S. is being used as a destination for this illicit trade.   

With recent military and territorial gains against Daesh, including the liberation of Mosul, it is more vital than ever to hit the group where it really hurts—their purse strings.

The Antiquities Coalition therefore calls upon all member governments of the Global Coalition Against Daesh to fight aggressively to ensure that the trade in “conflict antiquities” is brought to an end.


About the Antiquities Coalition 

The Antiquities Coalition unites a diverse group of experts in the fight against cultural racketeering: the illicit trade in antiquities by organized criminals and terrorist organizations. This plunder for profit funds crime and conflict around the world—erasing our past and threatening our future. The Coalition’s innovative and practical solutions tackle crimes against heritage head on, empowering communities and countries in crisis. Learn more at

Berceste Demiroglu
The Antiquities Coalition

Why Hobby Lobby is in trouble for importing artifacts

Why Hobby Lobby is in trouble for importing artifacts

July 6, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a major legal case involving the alleged smuggling of ancient religious artifacts. Late yesterday, the Department of Justice said that the nationwide arts and crafts company Hobby Lobby illegally imported thousands of ancient relics from the Middle East.

William Brangham has the story.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The government’s complaint against Hobby Lobby involves the purchase and importation of 5,500 rare clay tablets and artifacts from Israel and the UAE, antiquities that likely once came from Iraq.

Prosecutors allege that company missed several red flags indicating that this purchase was highly suspicious. Hobby Lobby argues this was an innocent mistake caused by inexperience. In an agreement with the Justice Department, the company must now turn over all the artifacts and pay $3 million.

Hobby Lobby is a family-owned evangelical Christian company. They were at the center of the 2014 Supreme Court case that ruled companies can’t be forced to cover birth control for their employees, and they’re also constructing a multimillion dollar bible museum here in Washington, D.C. that will open this fall.

For more on this case, I’m joined now by Deborah Lehr. She’s chairman of George Washington University’s Capitol Archaeological Institute and she’s founder of the Antiquities Coalition, which works to stop the looting of world cultures.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

Can you tell me just the basics? What is — you heard what I said about the overview of this case. What is the government alleging that Hobby Lobby did wrong here?

DEBORAH LEHR, George Washington University: The government is alleging that they imported knowingly items from Iraq and that they used falsified shipping labels and that they didn’t get the appropriate import permits to be able to bring these antiquities into the country.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And what are these antiquities? What are the items that we’re talking about?

DEBORAH LEHR: They are things, as you said, that are destined for their biblical museum, and they are clay tablets and cylinder seals and ancient items that were part of that time period in Iraq.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, my understanding is the company says these were not destined for the museum, they said they were just part of their larger collection. But the government also argues that there were all sorts of red flags that should have tipped off Hobby Lobby that this was not an appropriate purchase to make.

Can you tell us what were some of those red flags?

DEBORAH LEHR: Absolutely. First, Hobby Lobby is a sophisticated importer and they know very well that you have to designate the country of origin and the appropriate tariff line when bringing these into the country. This was not done. These items, instead of being declared as antiquities, were declared as clay tiles or samples.

They were not noted that they were coming from Iraq but, instead, that they were coming from turkey, and it’s no mistake that we have an agreement with Iraq that if they were being brought in and declared coming from Iraq, they would have to get an appropriate permit. Yet, we don’t have a similar type of agreement with Turkey.

They’re also coming from a part of the world where conflict antiquities are being actually excavated by groups like Daesh or ISIS, and knowingly being exported and used as a means for funding terrorism. And so, there are quite a few red flags that they should have known, and at a minimum they should have done provenance research, which they didn’t do. What they actually paid five individuals through seven different accounts and, as I said, then, shipped these in different packets, which might be understandable, but to several different locations in the United States and without the appropriate or accurate shipping records.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Now, the company agreed they’re going to give back these items and willing to pay this $3 million to the government. The company argues that they are new to this business and that this was really sort of a rookie mistake, that inexperience is what caused these problems, not any intentional looking past these concerns you’ve raised.

DEBORAH LEHR: Well, that’s a very interesting argument for a group that has a business that’s based largely on importing into the country, and it’s those two claims that they are actually being fined for. We could understand potentially that they may not be sophisticated about the specifics of what importing antiquities from Iraq are involved, but they are building a museum where they are importing and collecting historic items from around the world. So, we hope that there are not other rookie mistakes that they have made within their bible museum and the antiquities that are there.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I mean, Hobby Lobby is certainly not the first organization or institution to sort of trip this particular wire. I mean, major cultural institutions in the United States in the past have had similar problems. I mean, this is — it’s not an uncommon problem.

DEBORAH LEHR: Well, it’s not an uncommon problem, but we haven’t seen a find quite this large, and that it’s very hard to bring about these kinds of cases, though we commend the United States government and certainly ICE for the seizures that they’re making. But the trade in antiquities and the list of antiquities is a global problem, and we’re seeing it on the increase as we see conflict in the Middle East and — where there are millions of sites still yet to be excavated. It’s very much just an endless, almost excavation that’s out there for thieves to take advantage of.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As we mentioned, they’re building this enormous museum and some of Hobby Lobby’s 40,000 other items apparently are destined to go into this museum, and other experts in antiquities have raised concerns about the speed at which some of those items were gathered.

Have you heard those same concerns?

DEBORAH LEHR: Yes, we’ve heard those same concerns and one hopes they have actually tone the type of provenance research that they should be doing to ensure these are not part of the illicit trade. They actually had consulted one of the leading cultural heritage lawyers in the case of this specific import with items coming of these 5,000 items who had recommended that they do a lot more additional research. And so, they actually had ignored the warning they received from their own attorney.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right. Deborah Lehr of the Antiquities Coalition, thanks so much.

DEBORAH LEHR: Thank you very much.


PDF of Original Article Here