The Need For More Rigorous Institutional Due Diligence

In Parts I and II, we recapped the details of the Nancy Wiener case so far and examined the characteristics of the art market that make it susceptible to antiquities trafficking. Part III looks at the instances of institutional failure in Wiener’s case, where the checks and balances in the system did not act to prevent her from carrying out her alleged criminal activities.

Nancy Wiener’s case reflects the inadequacy of the due diligence performed by buyers, auction houses, and museums when  ensuring genuine and legal provenance of cultural artifacts. At best, their behavior could be characterized as negligent, and at worst, complicit, in prioritizing profits and plausible deniability over the law and ethics.

The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and Association of Art Museum Directors mark 1970 as the internationally accepted threshold date for artifact provenance, meaning that a work must have been outside its country of probable modern discovery before 1970, or legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970. Although many museums have complied by this date, auction houses have been slower to adapt their practices. Christie’s is  to be credited for the numerous voluntary repatriations they have made over the years. However, “according to the complaint only required evidence that the objects had been on the market since 2000”, regardless of that country’s patrimony laws (unless there is an earlier bilateral agreement with the United States). As the Wiener case shows, this comes with risks.

According to the complaint, it allowed Wiener to consign her mother’s collection to Christie’s after being turned away from Sotheby’s for not being able to provide ownership history. Christie’s allegedly only requested provenance for the top 20 lots of the 380-lot sale, to which Wiener produced a document titled “Provenance and Country of Origin Details” that contained false or flimsy provenance. Examples of dubious prior ownership that Wiener listed include an unnamed member of the Diplomatic Corps, Doris Wiener herself (who had consigned them for auction then re-acquired them), and Spink & Son, another antiquities dealer which had also been entangled in a looted antiquities case. Christie’s offered all 380 lots from its New York showroom for a total sale of $12.7 million.

Commercial institutions like auction houses are not alone in facing these challenges. The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra, and the Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM) in Singapore are two examples of museums which had also purchased stolen or looted art. Each museum purchased one of a pair of Seated Buddha statues, originating from the ancient Indian city of Mathura, from Wiener in the early 2000s, without required solid provenance. In fact, the ACM required no statement of provenance at all.

National Gallery of Australia’s Seated Buddha (Credit: Chasing Aphrodite)

The NGA only began investigating the authentication of its Seated Buddha statue in 2012 after the investigative reporter Jason Felch (of Chasing Aphrodite) began raising questions about its provenance following a tip from an anonymous source. According to Felch, the extent of the NGA’s due diligence was limited to requesting a search certificate from the Art Loss Register (ALR) stating that the sculpture was not in its database of stolen objects – a declaration which Felch notes as “largely useless” for looted antiquities since the database does not contain information on illegally exported artifacts unless they have been previously reported. The ALR itself warns that they cannot guarantee the provenance of any Designated Item and the Client cannot solely rely on the results of any search or enquiry by the ALR.

Similarly, the ACM stonewalled Felch when he enquired about the ownership history for the other Seated Buddha in the pair. With further investigation it was uncovered that Douglas Latchford, a Bangkok-based collector, helped Wiener fabricate the provenance papers for both of the sculptures. The provenance documentation that Wiener provided the museums was  forged, falsely identifying a British expat stationed in Hong Kong as purchasing the statues in the 1960’s. In the end, the NGA announced that it would “donate” its Seated Buddha to India, and it received a refund of $1.2 million from Wiener.

While this is merely one episode among many in the long-running saga of Nancy Wiener, this particular example reflects the important role of museums in the stewardship of antiquities. As institutions created for the education and edification of the public, museums can and must do better to increase transparency in the way they “acquire artifacts, accept donations, process loans, and publicize any doubts they may have about an object’s hazy provenance.” While industry guidelines suggest that “the best efforts be made to determine provenance, and you must not knowingly acquire any work that’s been stolen,” the lack of specific requirements leaves wiggle room for plausible deniability and “puts a premium on not knowing.”

Museums are charged with the lofty responsibility of guarding our past for the future, and they should act in accordance with the highest professional and ethical standards to live up to that duty. As the Wiener case shows, in the end, adopting these standards will also protect their own institutions.

Read Part IV here.

This is a guest post by our intern Nicole Ong. Nicole is currently a student at Georgetown University, earning a degree in International Relations. If you’re interested in interning with the Antiquities Coalition, please email

Ancient Artifacts vs. Digital Artifacts: New Tools for Unmasking the Sale of Illicit Antiquities on the Dark Web

Since the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as Daesh and ISIL) in 2014, antiquities have been a widely publicized source of funding for what has become one of the most technologically savvy terrorist organizations of the modern era. The globalization of technology and rise of popularity in cryptocurrencies has changed the face of black-market trade and the actors that carry out these crimes. While art and antiquities have long served as a market with susceptibilities to laundering, the emergence of Dark Web markets, identification-masking software, and untraceable cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have opened new doors to potential vulnerabilities. The anonymity that is offered by these technologies acts as a roadblock for authorities, while attracting the likes of terrorists and transnational criminals. Investigative research using cyber security platforms to identify digital artifacts connected to potential traffickers provides the opportunity to unmask the seemingly untraceable actors behind these activities. The evidence of illicit antiquities trafficking on the Dark Web displayed in this article can generate a new discussion on how and where to study black-market antiquities to gain needed insight into combating the illicit trade online and the transnational criminal groups it may finance.

Download full article here.

The “Broken System” That Allows Antiquities Trafficking

In Part I, we recapped the details of the Nancy Wiener case so far. Part II offers an overview of the legitimate and illicit art markets, and the difficulty of separating the two when it comes to the sale and purchase of antiquities.

The Nancy Wiener case exposes several of the systemic flaws plaguing the art market when it comes to antiquities trafficking. The constellation of players and networks involved in this case alone illustrates the stunning scope and reach of the illicit antiquities trade, stretching from the artifacts’ countries of origin (often war-torn or post-conflict societies) to the most prestigious institutions of the art world.  

Stolen statue of a Baphuon Shiva.
Stolen statue of a Baphuon Shiva.

The Wiener case demonstrates the extent to which the boundary between the legitimate and illicit art markets can be blurred. Due to the nature of the antiquities trade, the antiquities market is characterized as a “grey market.” As put forward by the researcher Donna Yates, in this context, the grey market refers to the fact that the legitimate market is “empirically a mix of legality and illegality at the demand end of the supply chain.” Put simply, illegality exists in each stage of the antiquities market, from archaeological looting at the source, to cross-border trafficking in transit, to trade at the international marketplace. Illegal points of contact are invariably mixed in with the legal, above-ground trade within auction houses, collectors, and museums.

Sam Hardy compares the lack of regulatory checks and balances in the antiquities trade — even for million-dollar items —  unfavorably to the regulation imposed on low-cost commodities such as eggs. While eggs might be subject to strict supply-chain transparency standards, the antiquities market provides little public information about the source of its holdings. The environment of secrecy allows for buyers and sellers to close one eye and proceed with their business. According to Hardy, if people do not ask the right questions or keep records, anyone in the chain can say, “I had no reason to believe that this was looted.”

As Simon Mackenzie points out, there are numerous challenges to accurately estimating the scope of the illicit antiquities trade. However, the Wiener investigation provides an illuminating snapshot of its massive profitability. Wiener acquired a stolen bronze statue originating from Thailand or Cambodia depicting Buddha seated on a throne of Naga (a great cobra) for $500,000. Following restoration, the Naga Buddha statue was displayed at Wiener’s gallery, offered at  $1,500,000 — three times the price she paid for it. In another instance, Wiener bought a statue of a Baphuon Shiva from a supplier for $250,000 before consigning it to Sotheby’s, where it sold for $578,000 — again, more than twice the price she paid.

These numbers indicate another thread in the narrative of antiquities trafficking that is growing in significance: laundering. Looted antiquities often “start dirty but end clean” through the laundering process. To illustrate  Yates’ definition of the antiquities grey market, an artifact might be illegally excavated at an archaeological site before being sold to an in-country middle man, who physically moves the artifact away from its illicit origins, and  provides import/export paperwork supporting the impression of legitimacy. The artifact then passes into the market through the hands of dealers like Wiener, who give the artifact false provenance through straw purchases at auctions, false documentation in art volumes, or restoration to hide any physical signs of looting.

Returning to the example of the Naga Buddha statue, Wiener allegedly conspired with Douglas Latchford and Emma Bunker, then-recognised experts in Southeast Asian antiquities, to hide the statue’s illegal origins by falsifying its ownership history. Bunker wrote a provenance letter claiming to have seen the Naga Buddha statue in Latchford’s London flat in the early 1970s, leveraging her position as a trusted voice in the field. This example highlights the regulatory shortcomings of a market reliant on someone’s good name as the basis for verification – without doing any additional due diligence. 

Thus, it is critical to keep in mind the basic principle of “Buyer Beware” when purchasing any antiquity. Especially with the prevalence of online sales platforms and limited policing, collectors could end up buying looted antiquities, unaware of their illicit origins.

As detailed in the complaint, Wiener had utilized several criminal networks to obtain and smuggle the cultural artifacts into the United States before consigning them to major auction houses or selling them to museums and private collections. Thus, in considering the factors that allowed Wiener to successfully conduct business for so many years in the antiquities grey market, one cannot avoid the question of institutional failure on the part of these auction houses and museums, which will be explored in further detail in the next blog post.

Read Part III here.

This is a guest post by our intern Nicole Ong. Nicole is currently a student at Georgetown University, earning a degree in International Relations. If you’re interested in interning with the Antiquities Coalition, please email

Contested Heritage: Monuments, Politics, And Memory In Asia

The Antiquities Coalition’s Executive Director, Tess Davis, presented at Boston University Center for the Study of Asia’s seminar and forum, Contested Heritage: Monuments, Politics, and Memory in Asia, last Friday. Joined by three other experts, Davis focused on Cambodian “blood antiquities” and the intersection of cultural heritage, cultural diplomacy, and cultural nationalism.

Davis employed the infamous Koh Ker Warrior to exemplify the global battle over the illicit “blood antiquities” trade that continues today, perpetrated by groups such as Daesh (ISIS). Davis discussed how the Koh Ker Warrior, after being looted during Cambodia’s civil war and sold to Belgian royalty in 1975, eventually landed in the hands of Sotheby’s auction house, which subsequently tried to sell the artifact.

A picture of the Koh Ker Warrior in Sotheby's catalog from March 24, 2011.
A picture of the Koh Ker Warrior in Sotheby’s catalog from March 24, 2011.

In February 2012, after a New York Times expose, the United States sued for repatriation of the Koh Ker Warrior in the case of U.S. v. Cambodian Sculpture. The auction house settled in 2013 just as the case was headed to trial. After the settlement, Cambodia provided a hero’s welcome to the warrior in June 2014.

According to Davis, this fight for the Koh Ker warrior blew the lid off the inner workings of the illicit “blood antiquities” trade. It led to a sea of change, not only in how those in the market and museum community view Cambodian antiquities, but in how the Cambodian government and people do themselves. Davis also concluded that “the overall message from the Sotheby’s case is that looting and trafficking of antiquities is a crime and it will no longer be tolerated: not by governments, not by law enforcement, and increasingly not by the art world’s own norms and values.” To learn more about the US market in Cambodian cultural property, read our blog here.

Dealing Dubious Artifacts: A Look Into The Criminal Probe Of New York v. Nancy Wiener

In the run-up to Asia Week 2018, held March 15-24 in New York, this is the first of a four-part series that will recap the ongoing case of Nancy Wiener’s arrest for antiquities trafficking. These posts will also offer commentary examining how dealers like Wiener could exploit loopholes, institutional gaps, and systemic flaws in order to carry out their illicit activities.
The details read like the plot of an Indiana Jones film: priceless statues looted from temples in distant lands. An international network of art thieves, shady dealers, and informants spanning continents. The years of patient, grueling investigative work that unravelled a thread in a conspiracy and ended up bringing down an empire.

In one of the art world’s most high-profile antiquities trafficking cases to date, the prominent antiquities dealer Nancy Wiener was arrested in December 2016 on the charges of illegally obtaining stolen cultural property via international smuggling networks and selling it on the art market by creating false provenance to hide their origins. Wiener returns to court on April 3rd to stand trial, hopefully closing a decades-long saga of looting, conspiracy, and smuggling.  

However, until then, Wiener’s arrest continues to send reverberations throughout the art world, throwing yet another spotlight onto the ongoing issue of fighting the illegal antiquities trade in the international art market. A criminal complaint filed in the Manhattan Criminal Court against Wiener reveals the surprising backstory behind the legendary New York dealer, and details Wiener’s exploits in building her trade in South and Southeast Asian art.

These include allegedly using criminal networks to transport looted cultural property across intermediary countries and hide their countries of origin; laundering artifacts through restoration and straw purchases at auctions; and in one instance, conspiring with authorities in Southeast Asian art like a prominent collector and academic to create false provenance for a stolen bronze statue of a Naga Buddha.  

Photograph of Nancy Wiener. Credit to Chasing Aphrodite
Photograph of Nancy Wiener. Credit to Chasing Aphrodite

Part of the Wiener case’s impact comes from her own high profile within the industry, as she and her mother, Doris Wiener, have been credited for helping kickstart the market for South and Southeast Asian art. Works from Wiener’s eponymous Upper East Side gallery are found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and several national museums abroad. The Wiener duo’s clients included high-profile figures such as John D. Rockefeller III, Igor Stravinsky, and Jacqueline Kennedy, adding another sheen of glamour and celebrity power to their brand.  

The Wieners were also blue-chip consigners with major auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and Nancy Wiener even consigned her mother’s art collection to Christie’s in 2012 upon her death. In a reflection of the Wieners’ stature in the art world, a press release on the sale mentions how Doris Wiener, “placed important works in top collections and institutions throughout the world,” and characterizes her as one of the “most distinguished tastemakers in this collecting category.”

The 380-lot sale raked in a total of $12.7 million dollars, a success by any other account. However, it has come to light that a significant portion of that profit came from suspected stolen cultural property, such as a silver-inlaid gilt bronze figure of Avalokiteshvara, which exceeded its pre-sale estimates of $250,000-$350,000 to sell for $812,500. According to the criminal complaint, at least another 20 lots in the sale had the dubious, non-existent, or plain false provenance indicative of looted antiquities.

Similarly, Wiener consigned a stolen statue of a Baphuon Shiva to Sotheby’s in 2011. Even though an employee had noted that it had “cracks and joins dressed up as paint splatters to maskrepairs,” likely from damage inflicted during its illegal excavation, Sotheby’s went ahead with the sale, citing a ‘Private English Collection’ as the source of the statue. The statue sold for $578,500.

It is likely that Wiener could have continued with these activities unnoticed by the authorities, if not for

Stolen statue of a Baphuon Shiva.
Stolen statue of a Baphuon Shiva.

several key developments. The first hints of what was to come surfaced in 2015, when a Seated Buddha statue sold by Wiener to the National Gallery of Australia was declared likely to be stolen. Wiener had to refund the NGA the price of purchase, and the statue was returned to India along with other looted antiquities bought from the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor, collectively worth more than $2 million

As it turned out, the wider federal investigation into Subhash Kapoor (termed Operation Hidden Idol) in 2015 proved instrumental in providing the evidence to bring down Wiener a year later. (Kapoor was charged in New York with possessing stolen items worth $107.6 million, and is currently awaiting trial in India). Pursuant to a search warrant carried out in New York, federal authorities obtained evidence of Wiener’s connections to Kapoor. They carried out a raid on Wiener’s gallery in March 2016, seizing 3 items worth nearly $1 million, eventually arresting her in December later the same year on the charges mentioned in the beginning of the post.

In all, the above mentioned details of this case raise many questions about how someone like Nancy Wiener could obtain and sell dubious South and Southeast Asian antiquities with impunity for so many years. The next few parts of this blog series aim to examine the players and factors that continue to facilitate the illicit antiquities trade — a transnational black market worth billions that spans continents and people from all walks of life.

Read part two here.

This is a guest post by our intern Nicole Ong. Nicole is currently a student at Georgetown University, earning a degree in International Relations. If you’re interested in interning with the Antiquities Coalition, please email


The politics of cultural heritage

How can Western museums reconcile respect for cultural property with hogging the world’s antiquities 

Nadine Loza , Friday 9 Mar 2018
Patrimony claims by countries seeking the return of their cultural property from North American and European museums, private collectors and antiquity dealers have accelerated since the 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the complementary International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (Unidroit) Convention of 1995.

Disputed antiquities originate in artefact-rich “source nations” and dubiously end up in economically wealthier “market” nations. Most countries can be categorised as either a source or a market nation, and this divide represents the two opposing stances which frame the repatriation debate.

The cultural nationalism of source nations prioritises the link between historical objects and national identity. Nationalists are protective of their cultural heritage and outraged by its plundering, firmly believing antiquities should return to, and remain in, their countries of origin.

Meanwhile, cultural internationalists advocate the universality of art, conveniently subscribing to a more fluid notion of ownership. Antiquities belong wherever the market distributes them, they say, because the world forms a global community that shares all cultural property.

Applied to Egypt, a similar dichotomy exists in the form of Egyptian Pharaonism versus Western Egyptomania.

The influence of our ancient civilisation has been far-reaching and is now to be seen throughout the world’s popular culture, fashion and architecture from the Eye of Horus used as the logo for the TV network CBS in the US and the obelisk-shaped Washington Monument in Washington DC to the glass pyramid that serves as the entrance to the Louvre Museum in Paris, Cleopatra bob hairstyles and shendyt Scottish kilts.

It would be exhausting to decry each instance of such usage and unrealistic to expect the world not to be fascinated by what is fascinating. As a result, we tend rightly to regard these acts of imitation as nods of appreciation.

However, taking inspiration from our history is one thing and taking its tangible remains and claiming ownership over them is an entirely different matter. The assumption that only Western museums can look after antiquities is patronising and false.

At the British Museum in London in 1937, for example, the sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, the so-called Elgin Marbles, were cleaned with harsh copper chisels and carborundum stone, damaging the 2,400-year-old patina on the figures and changing their form.

The famous Rosetta Stone from Egypt, also in the British Museum, has darkened because of decades of exposure to polluted London air in the museum’s foyer. It was only moved to its current protective case in 1999.

Market nations argue that they are more capable of safeguarding cultural treasures against turmoil, but is anywhere in the world truly immune to unrest?

The January 2011 protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square are sometimes cited as evidence of the danger of keeping priceless artefacts in the neighbouring Egyptian Museum, but what about London’s 1990 poll tax riots which saw Trafalgar Square in the centre of the capital descend into anarchy and during which no civilians stepped up to protect the neighbouring British National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery?

Arguing in favour of keeping the famous bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin in Germany, and lacking the gift of foresight, historian Arthur Weigall in 1927 said that “Berlin is a city perhaps less liable to a destructive upheaval than is the Egyptian capital.”

Luckily, the bust survived the bombings of World War II in a bunker, only to be taken out once again with the rebuilding of post-war Germany.

Adapting the bust as a mascot of sorts, Germany then claimed that it was integral to its cultural patrimony and new national character. Its claim of ownership of the bust has always been deeply problematic, however, as it is akin to sneaking a valuable, personal and prized possession out of someone’s home, taking it to your house, holding onto it despite the real owner’s appeals, attesting that it is really more yours because it has seen you through dark times, and later celebrating that supposed ownership in a centennial event marked by stubborn delusion.

It should go without saying that this cannot be genuine ownership and that cultural appropriation cannot absolve property theft.

The real issue for market nation museums is what would become of their collections and tourism revenues if they opened the floodgates by beginning to take repatriation claims seriously and returned key disputed artefacts to their countries of origin.

Their reluctance to do so does little to refute accusations of lingering colonial elitism. As antiquities lawyer Tess Davis points out, “colonialism is alive and well in the art world. So-called leaders in the field still justify retaining plunder in order to fill their ‘universal museums’ where patrons can view encyclopaedic collections from all over the world. A noble idea, in theory, but in practice, a western luxury. The citizens of New York, London, and Paris may benefit, but those of Phnom Penh? Never.”

The universal museums of these urban hubs claim that they are better positioned than source nation museums to serve world audiences, to which US Getty Trust President James Cuno has responded that “any museum that argues for cosmopolitanism and cultural diversity has the obligation to encourage that access everywhere. There is no reason to believe that people elsewhere are not curious about the world.”

Questions regarding the rightful ownership of high-profile cultural objects tend to lead to drawn out, politicised struggles that are fraught with emotion because they are, in essence, conflicts over identity.

Public awareness of cultural property and the ethics of acquisition has increased, challenging contemporary museums to right their historical wrongs. The act of restitution is in a sense awaited as eagerly as the artefact itself by the source nations because it is an overdue gesture of respect and social justice.

The rationale behind many repatriation claims is based on the notion that restoring an artefact to its original setting will help the source country reattribute positive feelings to it in its cultural memory while allowing us all to gain a deeper understanding of it in its intended context.

In a book on Nefertiti published in January this year, British Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley muses that “in the Cairo Museum, alongside the golden treasures of Tutankhamun and the silver treasures of Tanis, Nefertiti’s aura would surely diminish.”

How can an Egyptian queen’s “aura” possibly wither in Egypt and flourish in Germany? Does an artefact have to be a museum’s only notable attraction in order for it to stand out? And why are we still being punished for our cultural wealth?

The writer is founding director of the Egypt Diaspora Initiative.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

Hong Kong must shut door on illicit trade in antiquities before it can emerge as global art hub

A statue from an exhibition of Chinese antiquities at the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Kentucky. More than 10 million Chinese antiques are currently overseas, according to official figures quoted by China Daily. Photo: Reuters

Between 2011 and 2012, a wave of thefts hit museums and auction houses in the UK, targeting Chinese antiquities. In 2016, 14 people were convicted for the crimes, among them Douglas Wong Chi-ching, who travelled frequently to Hong Kong and was described by the BBC as a fence for the group. Such news comes as no surprise to experts concerned about the trade in illegally obtained antiquities and Hong Kong’s role in it “In a case like this, you need to know that the pieces can go out to the market, and Hong Kong is one of the places where these objects can be laundered,” says James Ratcliffe, director of recoveries at The Art Loss Register, the world’s largest database of stolen and lost pieces of art and antiquities.

The trade in looted artefacts in Hong Kong began over a century ago, when such items were sold on Hollywood Road. Experts say Hong Kong’s busy port and set of rules protecting buyers of illicit pieces have allowed this trade to continue. “If you want to buy looted antiquities, Hong Kong is one of the best places in the world to do it,” says Steven Gallagher, associate dean of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law.

Emiline Smith, a researcher at the University of Glasgow focusing on the traffic in cultural artefacts, says Hong Kong is now a transit point for objects stolen in Europe as well as China. “More often than not, Chinese antiquities that you can currently find on the market have been illegal at some point,” says Smith.

Deborah Lehr, chairwoman of Washington-based Antiquities Coalition, says Hong Kong’s proximity to China, and the rise in value of Chinese antiquities, add to the appeal of using Hong Kong as a base for “cultural racketeering”. Authorities are probably unaware that imported objects are genuine or imitation during inspection, according to Gallagher, who recommends a specialised unit to tackle the issue.

In a written response, the Customs and Excise Department of Hong Kong said there is “no evidence that Hong Kong is a major city for smuggling of cultural relics”, and that there have not been any seizures of such items during the past three years. The Information Services Department of the government of Hong Kong did not reply to a request for comment.

Antiques stores along Hollywood Road still remain a tourist attraction. Photo: Felix Wong

The key to the illegal trade is a provision originating in medieval English law known as “market overt”, which protects unscrupulous collectors. The rule gives buyers who have inadvertently acquired stolen objects “good title” over them, i.e. ownership free of any possible claims against it from previous owners. The rule was scrapped in the UK in the 1990s, but in Hong Kong, the measure is still in place. Countries that maintain “market overt” have a reputation for being transit countries, says Ratcliffe.

The result is that some dealers are willing to buy looted or stolen pieces regardless of their provenance, and forge certificates establishing a new provenance for the object, designed to predate international conventions against the theft of cultural property. “Everything is designed to provide safety [to the collectors],” says Gallagher.

Along Hollywood Road, the antiques stores are still a tourist attraction. Joanna Caen, a senior consultant and adviser for high net worth individuals, banks and trustees from the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, recommends to those interested in acquiring antiquities to buy “through reputable agents” and have the provenance documentation reviewed by independent experts.

That said, the challenge of determining real provenance is tough, paperwork or not. “Receipts and certifications are only as good as the person that writes them,” says Roger Schwendeman, an antiques merchant who operates in China and Hong Kong.

These claims are denied by the Hong Kong Antique and Art Galleries Association. “There might be some individual cases of smuggled pieces these days, but the scale is not as big as during the 80s or the early 90s,” Andy Hei, chairman of the organisation, said during an interview at the Fine Art Asia Fair, last October in Hong Kong. Hei says most collectors know their pieces “very well” and keep a clear record of their provenance.

A vase from the southern Song dynasty, is displayed at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in 2015. Experts say those interested in acquiring antiquities should buy only through reputable agents and have the provenance documentation reviewed by independent experts. Photo: Nora Tam

Other dealers admit there are still objects with questionable origins on the market, but stress that most professionals will stay away from them. “It’s up to the individual dealer; some take a chance, and some are more cautious, because you can have some problems with collectors, as many might reject those pieces,” says Nader Rasti, owner of Rasti Chinese Art. However, Jamie Wang, from Orientique Arts Dealer, says regardless of their origin, “good [pieces] will eventually be picked up”.

In 2015, pictures of a sculpture, exhibited in Hungary, circulated online. They shocked the people of Yangchun, a small town in Fujian province. Residents identified the statue as a much-beloved piece, which contains the 1,000-year-old mummified remains of a monk and was kept in a local temple until 1995, when it was stolen. The residents of Yangchun are now in litigation in the Netherlands against the current owner of the piece, Oscar van Overeem, a Dutch architect.

“Usually such objects don’t resurface again once they have been stolen and shipped overseas, and disappear in private collections. In this case, it was a matter of sheer luck,” says Stefan Gruber, an expert on the protection of cultural heritage from Kyoto University who acts regularly as legal adviser in cases involving illegally exported cultural objects.

Van Overeem has said the item was acquired in Hong Kong from a Dutch dealer, who has since moved to the Philippines.

Assessing the exact size of the market for illegal antiquities is impossible, but a study by the non-profit organisation Global Financial Integrity estimates its annual global value stood between US$1.2 billion and US$1.6 billion. Another study by Unesco estimates that China might hold about 20 per cent of the illicit market, similar to the Chinese share of the legal art market. Lehr says recent discoveries point to a massive illegal trade. She cites a computer seized from IS in Syria showing the terrorist group was earning US$5 million a year from illegal antiquities.

Imperial era tombs unearthed in 2006 at the site of a shooting range for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. A study by Global Financial Integrity estimates that the annual global value of the market for illegal antiquities stood between US$1.2 billion and US$1.6 billion. Photo: AP
 It is not just China’s heritage that passes through Hong Kong. Gruber says looted antiquities from countries such as India and Cambodia also end up here, where they are whitewashed and shipped out with forged papers.

In 2012, the FBI brought down Subhash Kapoor, a well-known art dealer from Manhattan, who is awaiting trial in India. Kapoor is accused of smuggling and selling hundreds of stolen artefacts from India, The Indian Express reported. Many of these artefacts passed through Hong Kong, including a rare 900-year-old Shiva sculpture bought by the National Gallery of Australia, which was later returned to India in 2016.

Some experts are now worried that the Belt and Road Initiative might lead to a new wave of pieces arriving in Hong Kong from territories with poor law enforcement in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has strengthened efforts to protect its long heritage, after decades of foreign occupation, civil war and Mao’s Cultural Revolution led to the destruction and pillage of ancient sites. More than 10 million Chinese antiques are currently overseas, according to official figures quoted by China Daily.

“Some of the biggest imperial tombs were looted in the past, and you could see … some really important relics displayed in stores,” said Jiang Qiqi, curator of several exhibitions on Chinese art, and founder of the online auction aggregator ePaiLive.

Now, any object unearthed from a tomb belongs to the state, by law. But many sites have already been left empty – 95 per cent of tombs have already been assaulted, Chinese archeologist Lei Xingshan told The Guardian in 2012.

This 18th-century porcelain Chinese vase sold for US$69.2 million at an auction in London in 2010. Experts say that while supply from China might be diminishing, thefts of Chinese antiquities from European collections might rise. Photo: AFP
 And China’s looters have not quit. Last September, the police detained six tomb raiders operating in China’s central Hubei and Hunan provinces. The leader of the gang had learned feng shui with the aim of locating unknown tombs, according to the Xinhua News Agency. Using feng shui, gangs could better guess the location of auspicious sites for tombs and their treasures.

The government has compiled a list of all the national relics in the country and strengthened the monitoring of relics, Jiang says. The Chinese government also enhanced regulation on the local auction market last year, banning the sale of any “stolen, pirated or plundered” artefact at any point of history.

Antiques dealers say the measures are effective. “There’s a lot of things that the smugglers won’t try to pass through the Hong Kong border these days, and their number has been going down, as Xi Jinping clamps down on everything,” said antique dealer Roger Schwendeman. Other observers, such as Ratcliffe of The Art Loss Register, are less optimistic.

And while supply from China may be diminishing, thefts of Chinese antiquities from European collections might rise. University of Glasgow’s Smith says European museums have the best-preserved pieces, which might tempt more robbers. Kyoto University’s Gruber suspects members of the People’s Liberation Army are still helping to smuggle artefacts out of the country, and Chinese officials from different ranks are still “involved in the trade”.

As Hong Kong ramps up its bid to become a global art hub, experts have called for the city to close its doors to the illicit trade of cultural property once and for all. “Only if Hong Kong implements comprehensive legislation regarding the trade, import and export of antiquities from China and the rest of Asia will Asian countries be able to protect their own national heritage effectively,” says Smith.

(This article appears in the March issue of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores and by invitation)

The AC Digs Into: Countering Looting Of Antiquities From Syria And Iraq Project

The Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TracCCC) at George Mason University received the State Department Bureau of Counterterrorism Grant for Research and Training on Illicit Markets for Iraqi and Syrian Art and Antiquities. To launch their new Countering Looting of Antiquities from Syria and Iraq (CLASI) project, TraCCC has assembled a diverse team of experts united in the goal of understanding the illicit trade of antiquities and offering practical solutions to law enforcement. We are here with Dr. Louise Shelley, Founder and Director of TraCCC to learn more about this project.


Dr. Shelley, first of all, congratulations on receiving this grant. This must be a very exciting time for you and your team. How did you first get interested in the connection between antiquities trafficking and terrorist financing?

I have been interested in this problem for over a decade. When I was still at American University over a decade ago, I had an Iraqi Fulbright graduate student write on this for his master’s degree. He is now a member of our team. Then I wrote on this as a problem in my 2014 book, Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime, and Terrorism. There I wrote on seeing recently smuggled high-end antiquities from Afghanistan for sale at the Maastrict Art Fair with the dirt still on them.

That addressed my engagement with the smuggling issue, but you should ask how long I have been interested in archaeology from the region. As a teenager, I used to subscribe to the youth archaeology lecture series at the Metropolitan Museum. I wanted to be an archaeologist but I was allergic to dust and mold, therefore this did not seem to be a good career trajectory for me. Through a series of circumstances, I became a specialist on Soviet crime when it was very hard to do research in the closed society. It also was not the most relevant intellectual problem. I would joke that it was as obscure as Mesopotamian archaeology when Saddam ruled Iraq and the country was also not very accessible to researchers.

In the late 1980s, I was chair of my Department of Justice, Law and Society and invented a new course entitled Western Legal Tradition that became a core course in the university curriculum. I received a grant from the American Bar Association to prepare myself and other teachers on the topic and we invited Dr. Ira Spar, now one of the advisors to our project, to teach us about Hammurabi’s Code and ancient legal traditions.

Now, ironically both Russian crime is an amazingly relevant problem to our current political environment and the smuggling of Mesopotamian antiquities has significant political consequences. This teaches us that one should pursue what is meaningful to ourselves and the need may come for specialization in what was once perceived to be an obscure and not very relevant discipline. When we had our first event at TraCCC on antiquities smuggling, we had to move the room for the talk as 115 people came. They were people who came to the event with very different interests but many shared a common passion for the topic.

Could you talk a little bit about what you have planned with your new initiative?

The CLASI project’s goals are to:

1.  Analyze the illicit trade in looted cultural property from Iraq and Syria with a particular emphasis on links to terrorist finance;

2. Develop information aimed at enabling law enforcement to investigate, interdict, and designate organizations and individuals involved in the trafficking; and

3. Use this information to develop training materials for law enforcement in partner nations.

At the present time, we are at the analysis stage using our multi-disciplinary and multi-lingual team to help us do the study. We are also supported by a group of data analyst specialists who have significant experience in the Middle East.

What do you think is the most important step in fighting the illicit trade?

Governments who fight the illicit trade tend to work in a stove piped fashion and concentrate on specific criminal acts. But the criminal and terrorist networks involved in this trade are generalists. They are in it for the money and often involved in many different sectors. One of our researchers earlier in his career, found antiquities traveling along with WMD (weapons of mass destruction) materials in his home country. So it is important to look beyond the looters and traders on the ground, and focus on the high-level facilitators and traffickers and the corruption that makes it all possible.

If policymakers could do one thing to address the current crisis, what would it be? What short term and long term changes need to take place?

The instability, lawlessness, and massive human suffering in the Middle East will provide fertile soil for antiquities looting for a long time to come. We are clearly not going to find a silver bullet there. Conflicts are increasingly being funded by illicit trade.  The recognition of this problem is a needed first step in addressing it. The UN Security Council in December 2014 recognized the link between smuggling of artifacts and terrorist financing in Resolution 2195, giving a strong incentive for the international community to act against this problem.

We also need to look at the demand side. We need to track the supply chain from beginning to end and then look for the best places to disrupt it. And some of those places may be in western countries among the facilitators who organize the final sales of the object. There also needs to be disincentives for buyers. Furthermore, we need online marketplaces like eBay to be more vigilant in monitoring the products they are selling in their online platforms.

We have been very impressed by the number of museum and scholarly experts who have approached us and asked to work pro-bono on our team. As we often say that it “takes a network to fight a network” and this is the case in antiquities looting as well.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in working in this growing field?

As we do our research, we are finding that new technologies that analyze big data, scrape the Internet, explore the Dark Net and track social media are providing important insights and giving us new research directions. Network analysis is also critical. So I would encourage all students who are interested in working in this area to learn to use these tools effectively.

Cultural Racketeering in Asia Highlighted in Yale Peabody Lecture Series

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

In recent years, New York City, one of the centers of the art world, has witnessed repeated high-profile law enforcement seizures of illicit Asian antiquities, from some of the city’s top auction houses, galleries, dealers, and collectors. Many of the pieces confiscated had been looted from war zones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Cambodia, where armed militants like the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and Khmer Rouge are known to have trafficked in so-called “blood antiquities.” The reputation, financial, and personal costs of the resulting investigations and prosecutions have been huge for many in the art market, while the loss to our shared world heritage is incalculable.

If major individuals and institutions, with their great expertise and resources, some having entire research staffs, cannot guarantee that their purchases are legal and ethical, how can an individual collector? The truth is that the art market is one of the largest unregulated markets in the world, and until fundamental changes are made, buyers should beware. But there are steps the art world can take to ensure that illicit antiquities — and especially conflict antiquities — do not make their way onto the U.S. market.

Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, Tess Davis, explored this issue in a lecture delivered at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Using a series of case studies, Davis illustrated what the art market can learn from the recent Asian antiquities seizures in New York City. In attendance were members of the museum staff, university faculty, students, and the general public. The lecture was part of Yale Peabody’s Cultural Heritage and Museum Lecture Series, which had also featured Dr. Patty Gerstenblith earlier in February.

The Antiquities Coalition thanks the lecture organizers and sponsors — especially Professor Stefan Simon — for this opportunity to raise awareness about cultural racketeering in Asia and around the world.

From Hearing to Signing: What’s Happened While Libya Awaited Their MOU


The State Department has taken admirable steps to stem the flow of these illicit artifacts reaching the shores of the United States, home to the world’s largest art and antiquities market. Emergency restrictions on certain archaeological and ethnological materials from Libya were enacted on December 5, 2017.

These emergency restrictions emphasized the United States’ concern for the need to protect endangered Libyan cultural property. Two months after the implementation of these emergency restrictions, on February 23, 2018, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, I. Steven Goldstein, and Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Lutfi Almughrabi, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Libya and the United States. This bilateral cultural agreement will restrict the market of trafficked antiquities in the United States.

The bureaucratic process for this bilateral agreement began in June 2017 when the Department of State published notification that the Government of Libya submitted an official request seeking import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material.

The hearing included a period of public commentary where individuals and organizations may submit comments on Libya’s submission in accordance with the four determinations considered by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC). The CPAC met on July 19–20 and resolved to enter into an agreement with the Government of Libya to restrict the import of cultural materials.

Since the CPAC hearing, Libya has continued to experience threats to their cultural heritage while also taking new steps to protect it in the midst of conflict. In the months that transpired between the July 2017 hearing and the February 2018 MOU signing, Libya has faced continued crisis which has fostered ongoing pillage and destruction of their cultural property. Yet even during this period of turmoil, cultural experts, authorities, and even citizens have upheld efforts to protect their history. This is a look at what has happened with Libya’s heritage during that six months.

Ongoing Trafficking

Lingering effects of clandestine Daesh (also known as ISIS) smuggling operations continue to be uncovered by Libyan officials. In late June 2017, the Libyan National Army (LNA) discovered artifacts from the Benghazi Museum in a Daesh stronghold. In October 2017, the Libyan Government expressed concerns over damage to the historic city of Sabratha “from the imminent danger of vandalism, and theft of its historical treasures because of armed clashes in the city and its surroundings.” As Daesh continues to operate surreptitiously in Libya, the nation’s culture remains under threats of pillaging and smuggling to finance criminal activities.

Police and other Libyan forces have continued to actively curb the trafficking of antiquities out of the country. Local police and special forces have recovered hundreds of artifacts, from Roman marble busts and statues awaiting transport in coastal houses, to hordes of silver coins being smuggled through Tripoli Mitiga International Airport. In late November 2017, Arabic media reported an “open online market for Libya” trafficking illicit antiquities. Artifacts range from Jewish manuscripts, to classical statues, and Ottoman era pieces – no period of Libya’s history is safe from traffickers while a market for this illicit material exists.

Civil Society Steps Up

Intentional and unintentional civilian endeavors have unearthed antiquities in recent months and shed light on the efforts of Libya’s civil society to protect their heritage. On July 2, a diver returned five Roman-era artifacts to the antiquities office in Derna that he had found during a diving operation. Just a few weeks later, outside of Tobruk, a Libyan citizen discovered a collection of Ptolemaic/Roman-era carved stones at a previously unknown site and notified the Department of Antiquities. In September, two young locals handed over a number of priceless antiques they had acquired from a local merchant. Civilians are also rallying to assist tourist police to protect and preserve Leptis Magna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “We live here, we protect it,” said 60-year-old Ali Hrebish, one of the volunteers who keeps watch over the site, “for God and country.”

Antiquities Authorities Making Moves

In the months since the CPAC hearing, a bevy of new initiatives have taken root in Libya for the protection of cultural heritage. Colleagues from the University of Durham have been training Libyan antiquities experts on survey and documentation of archaeological sites using methods like GIS and 3D imaging. In October, the Libyan Antiquities Authority (LAA) began an effort to document and protect archaeological sites in the remote desert village of Jaghbub; similar projects are now being carried-out across the country. In Benghazi, Libyan authorities are converting the damaged palace of King Idris into an archaeological museum.

In August, The Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mohamed Eltaher Sayala, advocated for cooperation between all parties in the Libyan state to expedite the retrieval and protection of archaeological, historical, and cultural materials and demonstrate their provenience in Libya. After Spanish police seized 11 illicitly excavated artifacts from Shehat and Sousse, Dr. Hafez al-Waldeh remarked that the return of these pieces was a devastating blow to the gangs who are attempting to fund terrorist activity through the looting of cultural heritage.

Libya is making demonstrable strides in its efforts to protect the nation’s cultural heritage in the midst of an ongoing conflict, but there is still considerable ground to cover. In January 2018, Salafist Islamist groups renewed attacks on Sufi religious and cultural sites, systemic clandestine excavations continue to ravage cultural sites across the country.

Looking Ahead

While Libya is making great strides to protect its heritage, threats of looting remain during times of turmoil. Protecting a nation’s culture from becoming a commodity on the black market requires international cooperation. With the signing of the bilateral cultural agreement with Libya, the United States is taking steps to enhance that cooperation and ensure that the U.S. market for Libyan cultural property is closed to illicit material. While this is an important step toward protecting Libyan heritage, countries across the MENA region continue to face the same threats. Developing and enhancing regional and international cooperation is vital to ensure the preservation of cultural heritage across one of the most important archaeological regions on the planet.

Written by Katie A. Paul

Antiquities Coalition

Mapping MOUs: An Interactive View Of Heritage Protections In Action

The looting and trafficking of cultural property is a threat in countries the world over, and particularly in nations facing crisis and conflict. With the U.S. serving as the world’s largest market for art and antiquities, many illicit artifacts are destined for this burgeoning market. But the United States can help mitigate this threat by enacting bilateral cultural agreements to stop illicit artifacts from making their way onto American shores.

Bilateral agreements, or memoranda of understanding (MOUs), between demand (“market”) countries and supply (“source”) countries are an effective tool in discouraging the illicit trade in antiquities. This is especially important for countries whose cultural heritage is at risk (or may soon be at risk) from armed conflict or violent extremist organizations.

Since the Arab Spring in 2011, cultural heritage across the Middle East and North Africa has been plagued by rampant industrialized looting, conflict, and trafficking by extremist groups. The United States has taken the important step of enacting emergency restrictions on imports of cultural property, and signing MOUs with these countries in crisis. In November 2016, Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a bilateral cultural agreement with the United States. Just over a year later, in February 2018, Libya became the second.

This interactive map provides an overview of the 17 cultural MOUs currently in effect, along with two existing emergency actions in Syria and Iraq. Each highlighted country reveals information on when MOUs began and what archaeological and ethnological material is covered. Play around, interact, and scroll across the map to learn more about what is protected.

To learn more visit our page on bilateral cultural agreements.