Learning TUgether: Campaign Against Cultural Racketeering

On March 25, 2019 Antiquities Coalition Founder and Chairman Deborah Lehr participated in a webinar with Trinity University, moderated by Dr. Mark Garrison, Alice P. Brown Distinguished Professor of Art & Art History. Lehr shared her important work and insights regarding cultural racketeering and the sale of antiquities to finance terrorism. Lehr highlighted the impact of cultural destruction on local communities and the repercussions of the illicit trade of antiquities worldwide. We thank Trinity University for the opportunity to speak about our organization’s mission and work. You can watch the full program below.

The Antiquities Coalition Applauds House Resolution on Financial Crimes and Cultural Racketeering

WASHINGTON, DC (March 21, 2019) – The Antiquities Coalition commends the House of Representatives for its continuing action to ensure the $26.6 billion American art market is not misused by criminals and violent extremists.

On March 13, the House of Representatives passed H. Res. 206, which warns that the “lack of sunlight and transparency” in industries like the art and antiquities market poses “a threat to our national security and our economy’s security,” while supporting efforts to close these  “loopholes that allow corruption, terrorism, and money laundering to infiltrate our country’s financial system.”

Res 206 highlights one loophole in particular: art and antiquities dealers are currently exempt from the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), which requires certain businesses to assist the U.S. government in detecting and preventing financial crimes, even though “Federal authorities have cautioned […] art collectors and dealers to be particularly careful trading Near Eastern antiquities,” since “artifacts plundered by terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are entering the marketplace.”

Additionally, the resolution directly quotes the Antiquities Coalition in asserting that “because the United States is the largest destination for archaeological and ethnological objects from around the world, the discovery of recently looted and trafficked artifacts in our country not only makes Americans and our institutions accessories to crimes, but also threatens our relations with other countries.”

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, sponsored H. Res. 206. In presenting the resolution on the House floor, she highlighted the need for increased transparency in the art market:

We know that ethnic and cultural artifacts are stolen and traded to garner funds for bad actors. According to the Antiquities Coalition, “the United States is the largest destination for archaeological and ethnological objects from around the world.” We know, too, that terror groups like ISIS have looted and sold these treasures to fund their operations, which the head of UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural heritage agency, said was worth millions of dollars and conducted at an “industrial scale.” However, today, dealers in arts and antiquities are exempt from the Bank Secrecy Act, creating a huge loophole for bad actors to launder funds.

The Antiquities Coalition appreciates that Chairwoman Waters, the House Financial Services Committee, and the entire House of Representatives are working to address the troubling connection between cultural racketeering and financial crimes like money laundering and terrorist financing. This resolution builds on last year’s efforts by the House to remove art and antiquities dealers’ current exemption from the BSA through the Illicit Art and Antiquities Trafficking Protection Act (H.R. 5886). Click here to learn more about this bill and why its recommendations are needed.


Antiquities Coalition Warns that Political Unrest Continues to Threaten Cultural Heritage Across the Middle East and North Africa

Statement Follows Reported Looting and Vandalism of Algeria’s Oldest Museum

WASHINGTON, DC, March 12, 2019 — The Antiquities Coalition commends the immediate response of the Algerian people and government to the recent looting and vandalism of the National Museum of Antiquities and Islamic Arts during the mass political protests now rocking the country.

According to Minister of Culture Azzedine Mihoubi, on March 8, 2019, thieves used the otherwise peaceful demonstrations as cover to steal 19th-century pistols and swords, which helped tell the story of Algeria’s resistance to French occupation. Administrative offices containing important records and other documents were also ransacked and burned. Created in 1897, the museum is the oldest in the country and includes art and artifacts spanning 2,500 years of Algeria’s rich history. The ministry described the damage to the building, its collection, and archives as “a crime” against Algeria ’s heritage.

The government reports that police have now recovered all the stolen objects, and stands united with the Algerian people in strong condemnation of the recent attacks. However, the incident highlights the ongoing risks of cultural racketeering during political unrest, which has plagued the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab Spring. For example, during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, brave citizens linked hands to form a human chain around the Cairo Museum to protect it from similar pillage and harm.

On June 13, 2018, the Department of State announced that the Government of Algeria has requested a bilateral agreement with the United States, which would impose U.S. import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material from the country, while increasing responsible cultural exchange. The State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee met to consider this request from July 31 to August 2 of last year. The recent threats to the National Museum of Antiquities and Islamic Arts demonstrate that the United States can do much to support Algeria in its work to protect its rich heritage both for its citizens and those of the world. We encourage the State Department to move quickly on Algeria’s request.

Cultural Crimes as Atrocity Crimes: Ending Impunity for Cultural Plunder and Destruction

On March 8, scholars and practitioners from around the United States and the world came together at the University of Georgia School of Law for a daylong conference on “The International Criminal Court and the Community of Nations.”

The Antiquities Coalition was a honored to participate in this event, which explored challenges now facing the ICC, as well as the role of parties, nonparty states, non-state stakeholders, and inherited communities. The seminar included presentations from leading experts, as well as panel discussions, and a video address from Fatou Bensouda, the ICC Prosecutor. It was organized by the Dean Rusk International Law Center, as well as the Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law.

Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, and herself a graduate of the law school, spoke about why cultural heritage should be considered a stakeholder in international criminal law and before the ICC. She noted that the Antiquities Coalition has long commended the ICC for its important work to end impunity for atrocity crimes involving cultural heritage, and has also called upon the United Nations Security Council to refer additional cases to the court, especially attacks by Daesh (ISIS) against the people of Iraq and their heritage. However, she also stressed that there is much the global community can—and should—still do to prevent, investigate, and prosecute crimes against culture.

Key takeaways included:

  • Cultural Racketeering and Destruction Is a Threat to World Heritage and Global Security: Culture has always been used as a weapon of war, but increasingly it is also being used as a criminal, insurgent, and terrorist financing tool. Daesh has made headlines for its highly developed antiquities trade, but some of the worst actors of the last century have also profited from stealing and smuggling art. This is a problem that predates, and will outlive, Daesh.
  • Plunder and Destruction Go Hand In Hand: Confusing the situation is the fact that many of the same groups that are now financing their operations through the illicit antiquities trade are also targeting cultural, historic, and religious sites for destruction. These cultural attacks may be used to intimidate—or even erase—local enemies and can also make for dangerous propaganda. Such cultural destruction can be an atrocity crime in and of itself, as well as a warning sign of impending crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide.
  • Cultural Racketeering and Destruction Is a Violation of International Law: Both cultural plunder and destruction, absent military necessity, are prohibited and even criminalized by the general provisions of international humanitarian law dealing with civilian property, including the law of Geneva, the law of the Hague, and customary international law. The 1954 Hague Convention and its two Protocols, the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, and the 1998 Rome Statute have reinforced these protections with specific provisions on cultural property.
  • The ICC Is Working to End Impunity for Cultural Crimes: In September 2015, the court opened its first relevant case, against Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi for the intentional destruction of historic and sacred sites in Timbuktu. Al Mahdi was an active member of Ansar al-Dine, a home-grown terrorist movement with close ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He pled guilty and became the first perpetrator convicted by the court for cultural crimes (as well as the first Islamic extremist). This case set an important precedent and is already paving the way for subsequent investigations and eventual prosecutions. Indeed, Mali has referred an associate of Al Mahdi to the court, who is now in ICC custody awaiting his confirmation of charges hearing for crimes against humanity and war crimes, including torture, rape and sexual slavery, and cultural destruction.
  • But More Needs to Be Done: Stopping the ongoing atrocity crimes against the populations of places like Libya, Syria, and Yemen—and their heritage—should always be the first priority. However, this is difficult, if not impossible, so long as hostilities continue. But, still, there is much the International community can do in the meantime. First, it can cut off cultural heritage as a source of financing for the organized criminals, armed insurgents, and violent extremists, by closing borders to undocumented antiquities. Second, it can incorporate cultural heritage protection in all peacekeeping mandates and training, as well as post-conflict planning and recovery trust funds. Third, crimes against culture should be criminally prosecuted along with other atrocity crimes, either through international tribunals or domestic prosecutions, recognizing they are first and foremost attacks against people.

Culture at Risk: Yemen’s Heritage Under Threat

On February 23, the Antiquities Coalition co-hosted an event hosted at the Freer Gallery of Art entitled “Culture at Risk: Yemen’s Heritage Under Threat.” This event convened experts from across the globe to discuss threats posed to Yemen’s rich cultural heritage from armed conflict, violent extremism, and cultural racketeering.

AC Panel on ‘The Response of the US and the International Community to the Crisis’, featuring (From the Left) Judge Luigi Marini, H.E. Ambassador Bughaighis, Ambassador (ret.) Feierstein, Deborah Lehr and Tess Davis.

The event opened with illuminating details about Yemen’s heritage and its immense value to humanity. Yemen has a diverse cultural heritage that extends back to the incense trail of the South Arabian kingdoms and over a millennium through a flourishing Islamic era. The remains of this heritage, tangible and intangible, are visible today, such as monumental buildings, sculpture, coins, gold and silver artifacts, and inscriptions to linguistic diversity, manuscript production, costume, poetry, and dance.

This priceless cultural heritage is under threat. Archaeologists, art historians, and specialists in heritage preservation spoke at great length about cultural destruction and looting in Yemen as a threat to history, human rights, national economies, and global security.

The Antiquities Coalition was proud to moderate the final panel which focused on the U.S. and international community’s response to these threats. This panel convened officials from around the globe, from the Permanent Mission of Italy to the UN to the Ambassador of Libya to the former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen. These current and former government officials discussed legal and policy tools that can be implemented to stop cultural racketeering in Yemen.

Click here to learn more about how the Antiquities Coalition is taking steps to combat looting in Yemen and stop the illicit trade in Blood Antiquities.

New York Times: Yemen Asks U.S. for Help to Curb Smuggling of Looted Ancient Artifacts

This week, in a New York Times exclusive, award-winning journalist Tom Mashberg exposed how cultural racketeering is financing crime, armed conflict, and violent extremism in the Yemeni Civil War, exacerbating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The report coincided with the visit of H.E. Marwan Dammaj, Minister of Culture from the Republic of Yemen, who was in Washington and New York to raise awareness of the illicit trade in his nation’s conflict antiquities, and urge the international community to take immediate action against it. It also featured Yemen and the Antiquities Coalition’s recent release of information on 1,631 objects plundered from the country’s museums during fighting with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Houthi militias. According to Deborah Lehr, the AC’s Chair and Founder, whom Mashberg interviewed for the article, these missing artifacts “are ‘blood antiquities’ in every sense of the name, and they may have already been sold to unsuspecting buyers overseas.’”

The Times piece began with a firsthand account of looting in Yemen:

Yemen’s deputy culture minister, Abdulhadi Al-Azazi, remembers standing mute and teary-eyed two years ago amid the rubble of a national museum in his war-torn hometown, Taiz.

Objects he had admired as a youngster — ancient limestone carvings, gilded Torah scrolls, bejeweled Islamic daggers, a spindly 2,500-year-old mummy — were missing amid the charred debris and shattered display cases.

“The museum was wrecked and everything was stolen,” he said in a telephone interview. “Everywhere in our country we see the same thing happening now.”

Some four years into a civil war in which members of a faction known as Houthis have fought Yemen’s Saudi-backed government to a bloody stalemate, the extent of the human suffering has drawn global attention. Less noticed have been the cultural institutions and archaeological relics lost or ravaged during the conflict, including thousands of antiquities taken from Yemen’s museums…

To learn more about threats facing Yemen’s cultural heritage from cultural racketeering, as well as how Yemen is working to close foreign markets to their conflict antiquities, read the full Times article here.

Again, this week the Antiquities Coalition and Yemen also released information on over a thousand artifacts looted during the war with al-Qaeda and insurgents, which is available here.

Public’s Help Needed to Recover “Blood Antiquities”

Antiquities Coalition and Yemen Release Information on Thousands of Artifacts Looted Amid War with al-Qaeda and Insurgents

Blood antiquities are financing the civil war in Yemen, exacerbating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. That’s the message from the Republic of Yemen as it battles Houthi militias and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yemen needs the public’s help to find and recover thousands of its priceless artifacts that have been looted from museums, libraries, and ancient sites amid the ongoing fighting. Experts fear many of these cultural objects are being smuggled onto the black market, and could end up in the largest global art market, the United States. Buyers should beware.

In response to this cultural racketeering, the Antiquities Coalition and the Republic of Yemen are releasing records of 1,631 objects missing from the country’s museums. This report was painstakingly compiled by Yemeni archaeologists and government officials, despite the continuing conflict. The pieces highlighted were pillaged from the Aden National Museum, Taiz National Museum, and National Museum of Zinjibar. They span centuries and civilizations, from Sabaean inscriptions, to Roman coins, marble statuettes, bronze figures, and sacred manuscripts.

“Terrorists and extremists alike, also destroy cultural heritage sites for ideological or propaganda reasons, while looting and trafficking antiquities to finance additional brutalities. Yemen is especially vulnerable to this cultural racketeering,” said Ambassador Dr. Ahmed Awad Binmubarak.  “Organized criminals, armed insurgents, and violent groups are plundering our treasures and are smuggling them overseas. Let us combat this crime against civilization and work together for long-term solutions to protecting our cultural heritage and in a manner writ large.”

“We call on the art market and general public to help recover Yemen’s missing treasures. These are ‘blood antiquities’ in every sense of the name. However, they are also the rightful property of the Yemeni people, which they hope to pass down to future generations,” says Deborah Lehr, Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition, a Washington, DC-based NGO leading the international campaign against cultural racketeering. “These artifacts help to tell Yemen’s fascinating story, from the days of the legendary Queen of Sheba through the Ottoman Empire. And they will serve as the foundation for the country’s postwar recovery.”

Yemen distributed the original 289-page Arabic language file to the United Nations in May 2018, and the Antiquities Coalition is now circulating its English translation throughout the art market, museum, and law enforcement communities.

The Embassy of Yemen has also launched a 24-hour hotline for the public to report any of its stolen artifacts, which can be reached at +1 (202) 717-1066 or antiquities_hotline@yemenembassy.org.

English Translation of Report

Original Version of Report


Picture: A man surveys the damage to the Taiz National Museum in Yemen after shelling in 2016. Credit Abdulnassar Alseddik/Associated Press.