AIA Spring Dinner: Championing Middle Eastern Heritage

On April 25, 2018, the Archaeological Institute of America and the Antiquities Coalition celebrated major contributions in protecting our shared world heritage, including the first bilateral cultural agreements between the United States and Arab nations. The gala, which the Antiquities Coalition was pleased to host in Washington D.C., honored four awardees who have made significant contributions to the preservation of Middle Eastern and North African heritage.

We would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the night’s honorees on their achievements and the continued work that they do to champion cultural heritage.

Her Excellency Wafa Bughaighis is Libya’s Ambassador to the United States in Washington, DC. Prior to her appointment, Ms. Bughaighis served as Deputy Minister for Political Affairs in the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and had a distinguished career in education as the Director of the International Bureau of the Ministry of Education for Eastern Libya. She was instrumental in securing the recent U.S.-Libya bilateral agreement, which restricts the import of illicit Libyan antiquities into the United States, while increasing responsible cultural exchange.

Patty Gerstenblith is a Distinguished Research Professor of Law at DePaul University and Faculty Director of its Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law. Prof. Gerstenblith chaired the President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee from 2011 to 2016. She is the founding president of the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and a director of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield.

Susan Kane is the Mildred C. Jay Professor of Art at Oberlin College. She is the Director of the Cyrenaica Archaeological Project in Libya and the Sangro Valley Project in Italy. Prof. Kane received the 2013 Presidential Award from the Society of American Archaeology for her work in preserving Libyan archaeological sites and heritage during the country’s 2011 civil war.

Larry Schwartz is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Prior to this appointment, Mr. Schwartz served a variety of positions in the State Department, including, Senior Advisor in the Office of Middle East Transitions and Director for Policy, Programs and Resources in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy. Throughout this career of public service, at home and overseas, Mr. Schwartz has championed our shared world heritage. His leadership was crucial in this time of uncertainty, not only in the Middle East and North Africa but around the world.

In addition to honoring these four individuals, Thursday’s event also celebrated the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, which implements the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. This 1983 law gives the U.S. President authority to enter into bilateral agreements with foreign nations that restrict the import of their undocumented cultural property into the United States. Such agreements — also known as memoranda of understanding (MOUs)—between market countries and source countries are an effective tool in discouraging the illicit trade in antiquities. To date, the United States has signed MOUs with 17 nations and imposed two emergency actions with similar terms for Iraq and Syria.

On February 23, 2018, the United States entered its most recent agreement with Libya, only the second with an Arab country.

For more information on MOUs visit our informative page here.

Read our press statement on the Libyan MOU signing here.

Antiquities Coalition Launches Awareness Campaign To Fight Cultural Racketeering And Terrorist Financing

Releases New Awareness Video for World Heritage Day

Washington, DC, April 18, 2018—To honor World Heritage Day, the Antiquities Coalition is launching a new video campaign today to raise awareness about how the sale of “blood antiquities” is financing ISIS and other violent extremist organizations.

The international crisis of cultural racketeering—the looting and trafficking of ancient artifacts to fund crime, conflict, and terrorism—threatens our world heritage and national security.

The not-for-profit Antiquities Coalition fights cultural racketeering with the help of an international group of multidisciplinary experts. Education is a key tactic in the organization’s concerted effort to stop the trafficking of illicit antiquities in order to preserve the world’s shared history for future generations. Its new video, featuring a consumer unknowingly purchasing a piece of looted ancient art online, brings the issue of the illicit trade and its consequences into the homes of everyday people.

This video sends an important message:

  • Those who purchase ancient art often have no way to validate whether or not a piece has been looted.
  • These buyers unknowingly fund violent extremism or criminals.
  • They also may unwittingly contribute to the destruction of the world’s shared cultural heritage. Cultural sites are destroyed by looting and by the extremists who profit from it.

See the video at “Violent extremist organizations are profiting from the illicit antiquities trade,” said Deborah Lehr, Antiquities Coalition chairman and founder. “Americans must remain vigilant to prevent their purchases from supporting crime and conflict. World Heritage Day is the perfect time to raise awareness of this crisis in the United States, which is the largest art market in the world.” World Heritage Day was established on April 18 by the 22nd United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) General Conference in 1983.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has recognized the credibility of reports that artifacts looted to fund violent extremism are heading for the U.S. art market. Other experts have warned such “blood antiquities” are finding their way to everyday online auctions. “No one wants to buy a blood antiquity, a stolen relic, or a modern forgery,” said Ms. Lehr. “Our website provides red flags to help potential purchasers act responsibly. But this new video has a clear message for art collectors and others considering investing in ancient artifacts: Let the buyer beware.”

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 Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or follow us on LinkedIn.

Media contact:

Berceste Demiroglu,
Program Director,,

Tide Turns On Flood Of “Conflict Antiquities” — Buyers Should Brace For A Ride

On the coldest day of the winter, January 2018, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos and his team of investigators bundled up to raid the home and office of one of New York’s wealthiest businessmen — renowned hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt. Their goal: seize a million dollars worth of allegedly looted ancient art from Greece and Italy.

Then, two weeks later, Bogdanos struck again, serving additional warrants against Steinhardt and Christie’s Auction House, and seizing another $2 million in Classical masterpieces.

These recent raids were not the first time that Mr. Steinhardt has been implicated in a criminal investigation. In February 2018, District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. repatriated two masterpieces to Beirut, which had been plundered by armed forces during Lebanon’s civil war, only to end up in Steinhardt’s hands. They are “conflict antiquities” in every sense of the name.

To some collectors of ancient art, such seizures are simply the cost of doing business. Another example in the world of high net worth individuals used to having what they want, when they want it, and at any cost.  Historically, the risk for Mr. Steinhardt and his cohorts has been low, and the rewards high, for owning and showcasing ancient antiquities that might have been illicitly obtained.

Apartments across the Upper East Side of Manhattan house millions of dollars of these artifacts — secured at auction, purchased from resplendent galleries, or acquired during international travel —  with no questions asked despite questionable provenance or history. Many come from warzones past and present or terrorist hotspots: Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Cyprus, Cambodia, the list goes on. No doubt some collectors acquired possible conflict antiquities in good faith — although that defense grows more difficult to believe with every ISIS headline — but others simply made a cost-benefit analysis and found the benefits overwhelmingly outweighed the costs.

Historically, the U.S. government’s position on illicit antiquities has been to “seize and return.” Whether the illegal antiquities were confiscated at the U.S. border or inside our borders, the federal government would often simply seize the artifacts and work with the host country to facilitate their return. Few, if any, of those in possession of the artifacts were prosecuted.

Take, for example, what happened with Hobby Lobby. Last summer, the Green Family, owners of the arts and crafts store, were forced to forfeit $3 million and more than 5,000 antiquities from Iraq that were smuggled into the United States—massively undervalued, falsely invoiced, and labeled with false countries of origin. In court filings related to the case, prosecutors alleged numerous instances of criminal activity,  uncovered after a six and a half year federal investigation. Yet no criminal charges were ever filed. Their actions even prompted Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro to say, “”Extraordinary. Hobby Lobby’s president illegally smuggled 144 artifacts into the U.S. and yet no hint of criminal prosecution.”

Until just recently, some in the legal system believed that the costs of prosecution were too high to pursue the scofflaws. This attitude led buyers of conflict antiquities to believe they faced little threat for making their illegal purchases.  At most, their item would be seized; at least, no one would care.

The tide is now turning as we see this equation upset by a new targeted task force.

In response to concerns of the growing illicit trade, early this year, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office announced that it is establishing an Antiquities Trafficking Unit, that “formalizes the collaborative processes and partnerships that led to these successful recoveries,” referencing the DA’s seizure of more $150 million in illicit antiquities. The new unit is headed by Bogdanos, who has a long history of pursuing stolen treasures:, in addition to being an Assistant District Attorney,  as a Marine Colonel, he led the U.S. government’s efforts to recover priceless antiquities stolen from the Iraqi National Museum in 2003.  

We applaud District Attorney Vance’s vision in creating this new unit.  New York is the largest art market in the United States, so it makes sense for this unit to be established in the city.  That said, collectors are not limited to one city or state. Therefore, to really address the growing challenge of the illicit trade, other major art centers should follow suit.  Dedicating just one attorney in each of these major art centers—Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, DC, as a start—to work with law enforcement and the art world to ensure that the U.S. market is not financing crime, conflict, or terrorism.

Deborah Lehr is the Founder and Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition, a not for profit dedicated to fighting against the illicit trade in antiquities.

New York’s 1%: Are They Supporting Crime And Terrorism?

This interactive timeline presents the cases that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office has handled over the past 5 years. Scroll down for more information about the data presented and to learn more about their continued efforts.

As the world’s largest market for art, the United States is an attractive destination for the illicit antiquities trade. One densely populated east coast city in particular has made headlines for recent high-profile raids and seizures of such artifacts: New York City. With its bustling cultural scene of world renowned museums and art fairs, countless illicit antiquities pass through New York City each year.

Even before the establishment of a dedicated counter Antiquities Trafficking Unit, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office was at the forefront of the fight against cultural racketeering. Led by District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., the team has successfully seized and repatriated millions of dollars worth of artifacts to their countries of origin. This interactive timeline sheds light on the ongoing operations of the Manhattan DA’s office, and their continued successes in ending demand for illicit antiquities. It begins with the 2012 seizure of five ancient Greek coins, and ends with the capture of trafficked antiquities from hedge fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt’s personal collection just earlier this year.

This timeline is a collection of information gathered from media reports, press releases and court documents. It shows the seizures of dozens of antiquities, with descriptions of their value and history. The timeline notes from whom or where the antiquities were seized, and where they have been repatriated, providing key sources for further reading. This timeline will be expanded as the new Antiquities Trafficking Unit continues in the path of Manhattan DA’s success.

Antiquities Trafficking Remains Under-Reported

 In Parts I, II, and III, we recapped Nancy Wiener’s case, examined the art market, and analyzed the due diligence processes that accompany any transaction involving antiquities. On April 3, Wiener returned to court, the judge continued her bail, and scheduled her next appearance for September 12, 2018. We will add additional information as soon as it becomes available. Here, we offer some concluding thoughts on the illicit antiquities trade.

The illicit antiquities trade is an issue that deserves greater and wider public attention than it currently receives. Besides the public perception that the trade in illicit antiquities is a “victimless crime,” most of the ink spilled on the topic of is dedicated to high-profile cases of Nazi looted art or terrorist financing for organizations like Daesh (ISIS). Yet arguably, the lifeblood of the contemporary antiquities trade stems from artifacts like the ones sold by Wiener: commanding high values (but rarely so astronomically high as to grab headlines), sold “clean” to end-buyers on the legitimate art market through prestigious auction houses and otherwise reputable dealers to museums and private collectors, and originating from far-flung areas of the world (the so-called “Wild East”) to which the general public has little cause or want to pay close attention.

This year Asia Week has reached its highest sales totaling $423 Million, with over $406 million from Sotheby’s New York, Christie’s New York, Bonham’s New York, Doyle New York, and iGavel, Inc. This festival is an important part of celebrating Asian art and culture on an international level. However, in the past, we’ve seen that it has also proven to be a conducive environment for the illegal, profiteering actions of those engaged in the illicit antiquities trade.

We should also not let bad actors taint the fundamentally optimistic, collaborative spirit behind Asia Week and similar events. However, amidst the gleeful reports of ever-increasing sales records, let us take care to ensure that we are not complicit in the destruction of the very cultures we claim to celebrate and value.

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

Antiquities Coalition Partner CLIR Receives $1.12 Million To Implement Platform And Processes For Digital Library Of The Middle East

Washington, DC, April 3, 2018—The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) $1.12 million to implement a sustainable, extensible digital library platform and set of curatorial processes to federate records relating to the cultural heritage of the Middle East.

CLIR and its Digital Library Federation (DLF) program will work with technical partners at Stanford University and content providers worldwide to build on the Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME) prototype and create processes to extend the DLME. The DLME is envisioned as a non-proprietary, multilingual library of digital objects providing greater security for, preservation of, and access to digital surrogates of cultural heritage materials. Among CLIR’s key collaborators are the Antiquities Coalition and the Qatar National Library.

“This critically important grant allows us to build and refine an exemplary global, federated digital library; to establish a secure, virtual environment for the preservation, access, and reuse of often-threatened elements of our cultural legacy; and to engage communities of effort and practice for the long-term sustainability of this and related projects,” said CLIR President and project co-PI Charles Henry.

The platform will be portable and reusable for any future digital library project, encouraging a global coherence of access to and preservation of the cultural record. The project team, led by DLME Project Director Peter Herdrich, the Co-founder of the Antiquities Coaltion; Curatorial Lead Elizabeth Waraksa; and a data manager/project coordinator based at Stanford Libraries, will draw on best practices from other digital library projects to support cost-effective and reproducible curatorial workflows for identifying, selecting, and federating digital assets that represent both cultural materials under threat and objects housed in libraries and museums beyond conflict zones.

“We’re honored and humbled at the opportunity to undertake this project in service to the people whose history will be accessible and cross-searchable through the DLME,” said DLF Executive Director and co-PI Bethany Nowviskie. “A major focus of the work will be on respectful representation and close partnership with scholars, communities, and content stewards.”

“This generous support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will enable CLIR/DLF and its international partners to build platforms and processes that will facilitate rich scholarship on and in the region for years to come,” said CLIR Board Chair Kathleen Fitzpatrick.

The project builds on experience gained in developing the DLME prototype, announced in January, which was supported with funding from the Whiting Foundation, and on regional partnership building and exploration of governance models in an earlier planning phase supported by Mellon. CLIR and Stanford expect to launch the platform in 2020.

For more information on the DLME, visit

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. CLIR promotes forward-looking collaborative solutions that transcend disciplinary, institutional, professional, and geographic boundaries in support of the public good. Among CLIR’s programs and a core DLME contributor is the Digital Library Federation, an international network of member institutions and robust community of practice advancing research, learning, social justice, and the public good through the creative design and wise application of digital library technologies.