A Bill to Apply the Bank Secrecy Act to Dealers in Art or Antiquities (H.R. 5886)

The Illicit Art and Antiquities Trafficking Protection Act (H.R. 5886) — which Congressman Luke Messer introduced to the House of Representatives on May 18, 2018 — will help to close the $26.6 billion American art market to money laundering, terrorist financing, and other crimes.

This bill will remove art and antiquities dealers’ current exemption from the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), which requires businesses “whose cash transactions have a high degree of usefulness in criminal… matters” and other financial institutions to assist the U.S. government in detecting and preventing financial crimes. Dealers in precious metals, stones, and jewels are already subject to the BSA, as are sellers of automobiles, planes, and boats, casinos, pawnbrokers, real estate professionals, and travel agencies. But to date, the multi-billion art market has been excluded— despite warnings from economists, law enforcement, and prosecutors that criminals are taking advantage of this loophole.

Congressman Messer’s measure to amend the BSA is now under review by the House Financial Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over issues pertaining to the economy, as well as efforts to combat terrorist financing.

You can follow the bill’s progress here.

Read our Letter of Support for H.R. 5886

Antiquities Coalition Wins Prestigious Recognition As A Top Global New Think Tank

The Annual Global Go To Think Tank Index Ranks Over 6,600 Public Policy Institutes for Excellence

Washington, DC, May 29, 2018— The Global Go To Think Tank Index, published annually by the University of Pennsylvania, has honored the Antiquities Coalition as one of the “Best New Think Tanks of 2017.”

The Global Go To Think Tank Index compares over 6,600 public policy institutes worldwide against 28 criteria, in order to elevate the profile and performance of exceptional think tanks. The list was compiled with input from over 7,500 international scholars, public and private donors, policymakers, and journalists. It recognizes the Antiquities Coalition as a “center of excellence” and one of the top think tanks established in the last 24 months.

Launched in November 2016, the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank promotes innovative solutions to combat cultural racketeering and other crimes against culture. By drawing from a wide range of international experts — including leaders in preservation, business, law, security, and technology — the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank is working to bring high-quality, innovative, and results-oriented research to policymakers and practitioners around the globe. It is one of the world’s only research institutes focused on threats to our shared cultural heritage.

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 theantiquitiescoalition.org. Follow us on Twitter @CombatLooting.

To learn more about the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank, visit http://thinktank.theantiquitiescoalition.org/.

About the Think Tank Society Program  
The Global Go To Think Tank Index is generated by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program of the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to publishing this ranking, the University of Pennsylvania program also works to analyzes the role of policy institutes in governments and civil societies around the world as they tackle critical global issues. This is the tenth year it has published the index. To learn more visit the 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report.

China, Una Superpotencia Con Mucho Arte

The collecting lives an unprecedented boom in the Asian giant, which is already the largest global market

Liu Bolin is a good example of how the great boom in the art market in China has developed. Until a little more than a decade ago, this tall man who has a hard time smiling was a sculptor who struggled to make a living with his work. “The market had already begun to grow, but Chinese collectors were in a snobby phase. They were only interested in foreign names,” he recalls. Chinese art had been reduced to propaganda, and ignorance of this new world made buyers bet on what they considered safe investments. The work in the end was the least; what mattered was its possible revaluation. “

At the opposite extreme, since 2003 the economic boom of the Asian giant strongly encouraged a new fashion in the West. “There were foreign buyers who were interested in Chinese art, but above all they looked for pieces – they were paintings or sculptures – with clear Chinese elements. Mao’s effigy and the motifs related to the Cultural Revolution became ‘cool’ pop icons that provided a lot of money for those who used them. ” Liu, however, resisted falling into the commercial.

Meanwhile, artists who previously could not even pay rent in Beijing’s 789 studios – soon to become one of the capital’s fashion destinations – moved overnight to drive luxury cars. In the heat of interest in China, the beginning of the century led to the takeoff of superstars that are now among the most sought after in the world: Zhang Xiaogang – famous thanks to his hieratic family portraits from the time of the Cultural Revolution -, Yue Minjun – specialized in painting himself laughing with laughter-, Zeng Fanzhi -whose personal interpretation of ‘The Last Supper’ sold for more than 20 million euros in 2013- and the controversial Ai Weiwei, which in 2015 was the most sought-after Chinese artist in auctions with more than 4 million euros.

Your own rules

Liu, for his part, had to take advantage of the misfortune. “In 2005, the government demolished my study in Beijing because it considered that the building did not comply with the new urban regulations. And I decided to protest my way: making pictures of myself camouflaged among the ruins ». Painted from head to toe as the background on which he posed, he became the new invisible man and began the series that has made him world famous: ‘Hidden in the city’. Using the technique of snipers, his works have been opened to the world and currently serve to criticize all kinds of injustices. Liu is already one more star of the growing Chinese artistic universe, but it does not represent the pitch, but the maturation of avant-garde art.

In any case, it is clear that the sector has exploded like a supernova. After three years of turbulence, China once again led the world market in 2016 with sales of around 12,000 million euros. And most analysts believe that the trend is going to hold. Thus, while the rest of the developed world saw the volume of acquisitions of art and antiquities in auctions significantly reduced – according to Artsy data, in the United Kingdom they fell by 41%, in the United States by 30% and in continental Europe by 20, 9% -, in the Asian country the decrease was 16%.

As in other sectors, the Chinese art market is governed by its own rules. The government restricts the operations of foreign auction houses while subsidizing local counterparts, which it also encourages to go abroad. Thus, six of them have already sneaked into the ten most powerful in the world. And it does not escape anyone that the Communist Party exercises great influence over them. In fact, one of the most important, China Guardian Auctions, is owned by Chen Dong Sheng, who is married to Kong Dongmei, granddaughter of Mao Tsetung himself. “I want to create a Chinese Sotheby’s that recreates the cultural aristocracy of my country,” Chen told the Beijing Times newspaper. Loud and clear.

En un escenario de precios inflados por el patriotismo en lo que a la adquisición de piezas chinas en el extranjero se refiere, han irrumpido también los nuevos museos. El país contaba a finales de 2016 con 4.692 e inaugura unos 200 al año. El Gobierno quiere que para 2020 haya uno por cada 250.000 habitantes –ahora hay uno por cada 290.000– y que los visiten 800 millones de personas. Es un gran salto si se tiene en cuenta que China contaba con solo 25 museos cuando Mao proclamó la República Popular en 1949. Además, el Estado invertirá unos 400 millones de euros anuales para que la mayoría sean gratuitos. Después de construir los edificios hay que llenarlos de obras, y eso supone una gran oportunidad para todo el mundo.

Cambio en el cliente

Al plan gubernamental hay que sumar los coleccionistas privados. Algunos, como Liu Yiqian, dueño del Museo Long de Shanghái, han protagonizado titulares por sus costosas adquisiciones, como la del ‘Desnudo acostado’, de Amedeo Modigliani, por el que pagó 158 millones de euros en Christie’s. «En mi opinión, es una excelente forma para que la población más pudiente contribuya al enriquecimiento cultural del país», afirma Cai Jingqing, presidenta de Christie’s en China.

Basta un paseo por el distrito 798 de Pekín o el Moganshan 50 de Shanghái para certificar que el arte chino es mucho más que cerámica antigua. En estos barrios gremiales hay galerías que ofrecen obras desde unos cientos de euros. Según datos oficiales, estos negocios ya venden por un importe mayor que las subastas. «Lo importante es correr algo de riesgo y apostar por nombres que van a tener un auge rápido», advierte Vicky Wu, de la galería shanghainesa Chronus Art Center.

China, a superpower with a lot of art

Wu certifica un cambio relevante en el tipo de cliente. «En un principio eran sobre todo extranjeros. Expatriados que querían llevarse un recuerdo de China y que veían la posibilidad de que se revalorizase con el tiempo. Ahora la mayoría son chinos que tienen un buen conocimiento del mercado y que también disfrutan con las obras. No las compran para dejarlas en un almacén a la espera de que aumente su valor. Las quieren colgar en sus casas para demostrar sofisticación. Son los mismos que antes tenían copias de cuadros clásicos europeos en el salón».

Según los expertos, para afianzarse en lo más alto del arte mundial, China debe antes eliminar las barreras que ha levantado para dificultar la entrada de empresas foráneas. «Competir con los mejores eleva la calidad de todos. Abrir la puerta a galerías y casas de subastas extranjeras elevará el estándar de las chinas. Y eso es una necesidad en un sector constantemente golpeado por obras falsas o que han sido fruto de un saqueo», ha escrito Deborah M. Lehr, consejera delegada de la consultoría Basilinna, en ‘The Diplomat’.

El patriotismo hincha los precios

Algunos coleccionistas se han marcado como objetivo recuperar el patrimonio chino disperso por el mundo cueste lo que cueste

«Es importante actualizar ya la idea de que los compradores chinos no saben de arte. El coleccionismo chino tiene una larga historia. Es cierto que sufrió un hiato durante la Revolución Cultural (1966-1976) y que el arte contemporáneo ha sido desconocido hasta hace un par de décadas, pero eso no quiere decir que los chinos vayan a comprar cualquier cosa a cualquier precio», dice Cai Jingqing, presidenta de Christie’s en China.

Reconoce, no obstante, que existe un componente patriótico que distorsiona el mercado. «Muchos de nuestros clientes chinos sienten que su país ha sido expoliado por diferentes potencias mundiales a lo largo de la historia reciente. Por eso, cuando alcanzan un cierto estatus económico, centran su interés en adquirir ese patrimonio desperdigado por el mundo para traerlo de vuelta a casa. Es una operación llena de orgullo». Eso explica que se hayan batido récords por obras que en otras circunstancias habrían pasado desapercibidas o no habrían estado tan cotizadas. Sucedió, por ejemplo, con el bordado tradicional tibetano –thangka– del siglo XV que el multimillonario Liu Yiqian compró en 2014 por 44 millones de dólares.

In some cases, specialists consider that the border of reasonableness has been crossed. One of the most striking was starred in 2010 by an anonymous collector who paid $ 86 million for an eighteenth-century piece of porcelain valued at 1.3 million. A year later, the acquisition of another vessel was described by some as surreal when the buyer paid for it 20,000 times the suggested price: 18 million dollars for a piece valued at less than a thousand. Even the Chinese press has asked for moderation to collectors who go from auction to auction all over the world.

You can read the orginial article here.

Manhattan DA Moves To Return Looted Persian Masterpiece

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is continuing its groundbreaking work to investigate and prosecute cultural racketeering in New York City. Yesterday, May 24, District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. petitioned the Supreme Court of the State of New York to turn over an ancient looted masterpiece to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The antiquity, known as the “Persian Guard Relief” in legal filings, was stolen from the World Heritage Site of Persepolis in 1935. Despite efforts by Tehran to find and recover the relief, it disappeared into the global black market, and was then laundered onto the “legal” art market, only to be stolen from a major Canadian museum, then miraculously recovered, and finally put up for sale at a leading New York art fair. It likely would have vanished again into a private collection, were it not for the efforts of Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, who seized the piece in October 2017 after he and his team learned of its illicit origins.

In yesterday’s filing, which reads like a detective novel, Vance and Bogdanos present new evidence in the dispute, painting a fascinating picture of the relief’s history over the last 70 years. The motion is worth reading in full as a case study in cultural racketeering. It demonstrates how the art world’s “conspiracy of silence” puts the entire industry at risk of selling stolen property — but also facilitating looting, trafficking, and money laundering.

In an effort to fight back against the illicit antiquities trade’s hold on New York City, in early 2018, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office established a specialized unit focused exclusively on investigating and prosecuting cases of cultural racketeering. The Antiquities Coalition has created a timeline illustrating its ongoing successes. We encourage you to explore this interactive resource here and learn more about their important work.

The AC Digs Into: Chasing Aphrodite

Chasing Aphrodite (2011) by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino recounts the intimate relationship between the J. Paul Getty Museum and the world of the trade in illicit antiquities since the 1970s. Through a retelling of these case studies, Felch and Frammolino expose how prevalent and pervasive this illicit trade had been throughout much of the latter half of the twentieth century. Though much of the book is focused on the internal operations at the Getty Museum, there is no shying away from the reality that many other institutions across North America were also operating under the same premises at the time, essentially turning a blind eye to antiquities that had suspicious provenance or no provenance at all.

Felch and Frammolino’s decision to focus primarily on the Getty Museum and its inner workings points toward the elite narrative of antiquity trading. Sitting at the upper end of monetary capability, the Getty could acquire whatever it desired in its collection. Beyond that, the various corruption scandals that rocked the institution paint the Getty as willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to acquire their targets. Felch and Frammolino illustrate that this mindset was not entirely out of pure greed for the pieces themselves, but rather that the Getty, along with many other institutions, was heavily invested in creating the most prestigious exhibits possible for their visitors, and the market of looted antiquities provided them with the means to do so quickly and efficiently, despite its illegality.

While Chasing Aphrodite tackles a complicated story, that may challenge readers who are new to this field, the book does a great job of introducing the world of the illicit trade of antiquities. Felch and Frammolino illustrate nuances with much detail, noting that not all preventative measures were truly enforceable for a long time and that a divide among curators and archaeologists helped to solidify the black market for antiquities.

Chasing Aphrodite is an informative introduction into the world of trafficked antiquities and the measures being taken to prevent it, as the historical background provides the reader with applicable knowledge for how the antiquities trade is shaping up in the present day. Felch and Frammolino do an excellent job presenting this issue for how complex it truly is, however, the overall narrative, with all of its intersecting issues, was easy to trace from start to finish. Chasing Aphrodite, using the case study of the Getty Museum, is a relevant work for anyone that wants to understand more about trafficked antiquities or the art world.

This is a guest post by our intern Nathan Tietz. Nathan is currently a student at American University, earning a degree in International Studies. If you’re interested in interning with the Antiquities Coalition, please email cultureunderthreat@theantiquitiescoalition.org.

Tunisia’s Light Side and Dark Side: Home of Luke Skywalker and ISIS Foreign Fighters

December 2017 marked the premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, part of the long-awaited final trilogy in one of the most famous sci-fi series ever created. While filming locations and special effects for The Last Jedi have been mainly confined to Europe and heavily comprised of CGI, the earlier movies relied on elaborate set designs in exotic locations to create the planets in a galaxy far, far away.

Some of the most iconic scenes in the Star Wars trilogies are located in Tunisia, a nation that has suffered significant economic and political instability since the 2011 Arab Spring. Even through this regional turmoil, remnants of the 1970’s set of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope still stand today and have become a relic of modern cultural history.  

When the country was chosen for multiple filming locations during the first trilogy’s production in the 1970s, the magnificence of Tunisia’s archaeological landscape was so striking that the ancient town of Tataouine became George Lucas’ inspiration for the name of Luke Skywalker’s home planet. The now-famous Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata, an ancient Berber structure that has become a hallmark of Tunisia’s tourism scene, served as the interior of Luke’s childhood home.

The town of Ajim on the Island of Djerba became the home of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the infamous cantina where Luke sees Obi-Wan use The Force. Like many of the filming locations, the Island of Djerba’s significance is far greater than a scene in a blockbuster movie. The island is home to the  Ghriba Synagogue and houses a vibrant Jewish community. In 2017, Tunisian Minister of Culture Mohamed Zine El-Abidine announced they would be seeking a UNESCO World Heritage Status for the Island and its Jewish heritage, an impressive addition to the country’s current list of seven sites.

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site would aid Tunisia in its “focus also on cultural tourism, valorizing [it’s] archaeological sites … and the Bardo National Museum.” Sadly, the day following this announcement, in 2015, Daesh (ISIS) militants stormed the Bardo museum and opened fire, claiming the lives of 20 foreign tourists.

The Sidi Driss Hotel
The Sidi Driss Hotel

Just days after the Bardo Museum attack, reports surfaced that Tataouine was falling into conflict at the hands of Daesh. Tunisia has served as one of the highest sources of foreign fighters to Daesh, and with Tataouine situated near Tunisia’s eastern border, the site is increasingly threatened by the movements of militants across the region. The country’s shared border with Libya became more porous as Libya drove further into its second civil war in 2015, fueling the migration of fighters between the two countries.

Although Libya is sadly still at war today, Tunisia has taken a different turn, seeing significant gains in political stability and economic growth since 2015. The country’s aim to inscribe new UNESCO World Heritage Sites shows its commitment to protecting its heritage and continue to cultivate its tourism economy. However, as foreign fighters return home from Syria and Iraq, Tunisia must be prepared to shield its history from the theft and destruction that these fighters have made a marker of their brand. Not even The Force can protect heritage from those who seek to destroy it.

Katie A. Paul is a Fellow at the Antiquities Coalition, a not for profit dedicated to fighting against the illicit trade in antiquities.


Smuggled Artifacts Returned To Iraq

This Wednesday, April 2, 2018, the United States returned nearly 4,000 looted antiquities to the Republic of Iraq in a ceremony held at the Ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C.

Selection of artifacts on display at the repatriation ceremony.

This repatriation was the outcome of a highly publicized federal lawsuit, in which the U.S. government seized thousands of ancient artifacts from Hobby Lobby, the national chain of arts and crafts stores. These pieces came from modern-day Iraq but had been smuggled into the United States through Israel and the United Arab Emirates, falsely described as “tile samples” from Turkey. Hobby Lobby settled the case, consented to the forfeiture of the antiquities, as well $3 million. No criminal penalties were imposed, but there was significant media coverage.

H.E. Fareed Yasseen, Ambassador of Iraq, opened the ceremony by stating the value of this cultural heritage to the people of Iraq. “These pieces are very important to us and they should be returned home to Iraq, to the rightful owner of these pieces.” He further went on to say, “Iraqis have long memories. We have a kinship with these artifacts.”

A small fraction of the confiscated antiquities was displayed at the event, including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and clay bullae, representing the rich cultural heritage of Iraq. As U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue stated, “The Republic of Iraq, standing on the land that was once home to the storied city-states and kingdoms of Mesopotamia, has a celebrated heritage as a cradle of civilization.”

“CBP is honored to have played a role, together with ICE, in the return of these national treasures to their rightful owner, the Republic of Iraq,” stated U.S. Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner Ian Saunders. “In doing so, we ensure the protection of this priceless cultural heritage and secure a precious, tangible link to the past for future generations.”

The Antiquities Coalition was pleased to attend the ceremony and see representatives from both governments come together in their shared mission to protect Iraqi culture under threat. Items such as the ones presented in these photos continue to emerge in the American art market and are a great historical loss to their source nations.