Taliban Captures World Heritage Site in Afghanistan

International Community Must Remain Vigilant in Protecting World Heritage

WASHINGTON, DC (May 30, 2019) — The Antiquities Coalition condemns the Taliban’s  latest attack on the Afghan people and their cultural heritage, while calling for the United States to continue fighting back against cultural crimes and violent extremism with all available policy tools.

News outlets report that yesterday, May 29, the Taliban captured the 12th-century Minaret of Jam and killed 18 Afghan security personnel tasked with protecting the World Heritage Site. Pro-government forces have yet to re-secure the area. The current condition of the brick structure and the surrounding communities, who were both threatened by torrential flooding just last week, is still unknown.

At 65 meters high, the Minaret of Jam is the world’s second tallest Islamic tower, and one of Afghanistan’s most sacred and treasured landmarks.  Its capture, if confirmed, marks a tragic continuation of the Taliban’s campaign of terror. The jihadists have razed countless archaeological, historic, and sacred sites, such as the 6th-century Buddhas of Bamiyan, which Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered dynamited in March 2001.

This destruction has gone hand in hand with the organized looting and trafficking of antiquities by the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other organized criminal gangs with ties to various militant forces. Experts have long feared that these so-called “blood antiquities” are being marketed to unsuspecting buyers in the $26.6 billion U.S. art market. Homeland Security Investigations have seized and repatriated a number of Afghan antiquities—including coins known to have been looted by the Taliban—while others are currently being investigated and prosecuted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

While Afghanistan’s people and cultural heritage will remain at risk so long as the country remains in conflict, there is still much the international community can do to fight cultural crimes and end impunity for them.

Here are but three possibilities to consider:

  • “Demand countries” should immediately close their borders to illicit antiquities, preventing their use as a source of criminal and terrorist financing. The United States is to be commended for restricting the import of undocumented cultural property from countries in crisis like Libya, Iraq, and Syria. However, our markets remain open to looted material from other hotspots, including Afghanistan.
  • As cultural heritage provides an important foundation for national reconciliation and economic recovery, its protection should be incorporated in all peacekeeping mandates and training, as well as post-conflict planning and recovery trust funds.
  • Crimes against culture must be criminally prosecuted along with other atrocity crimes, either through domestic or international tribunals, recognizing they are first and foremost attacks against people.

The Antiquities Coalition stands with the people of Afghanistan against this brutal assault on our shared cultural heritage and implores the international community to do the same.


About the Antiquities Coalition 

To protect our shared heritage and global security, the Antiquities Coalition is leading the international campaign against cultural racketeering, the illicit trade in ancient art and artifacts. We champion better law and policy, foster diplomatic cooperation, and advance proven solutions with public and private partners worldwide. We are working toward a future when the past is preserved for the next generation, not looted, smuggled, and sold to finance crime, conflict, and terror. Learn more at theantiquitiescoalition.org.

How Can We Continue to Protect and Preserve the Integrity of the Art and Antiquities Trade in New Orleans?

Thursday, May 30, 2019
New Orleans, Louisiana

On May 30, the Antiquities Coalition participated in a public outreach program organized by Homeland Security Investigations in New Orleans, Louisiana. The event brought together representatives from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, museums, auction houses, galleries, collectors, and nonprofit organizations. With this diverse array of participants, it raised awareness about cultural racketeering, as well as the need for cooperation between different sectors of the art market and law enforcement. It also asked how these groups can work together to facilitate the legal trade in art and antiquities, while better combating the illicit trade.

New Orleans has an important role to play in the fight against cultural crimes. The city is home to several major museums, as well as some of the nation’s oldest antiques and antiquities galleries. But just as importantly, New Orleans is in the middle of the world’s largest port complex, which stretches 290 miles along the Mississippi River. Each year 11,000 oceangoing vessels move through the city, carrying some 500 million tons of cargo from around the world, including an unknown amount of arms, drugs, and other contraband. While no longer the smugglers’ paradise of Jean Lafitte, speakers warned that all in the New Orleans’ legal, law enforcement, and arts communities should be on alert about the illicit trade in cultural property.

AC Executive Director Tess Davis spoke about vulnerabilities within the $26.6 billion U.S. art market, including forgery, fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, and terrorist financing. To combat these risks, Davis presented the AC’s #BuyerBeware campaign, an initiative that provides tools—including red flags—that potential buyers should consider before purchasing artifacts.

Key takeaways included:

  • Transparency is in everyone’s interest, but the market’s most of all. Clients are increasingly calling for it, as scandals and prosecutions rightfully erode trust in the art industry, and that in turn affects the bottom line. Conducting due diligence and other best practices, and staying within not only the letter but the spirit of the law and ethical guidelines, will help the market to grow.
  • A number of responsible players in the art market have recognized their vulnerability to financial crimes like money laundering, terrorist financing, and fraud, in addition to the risk of unknowingly dealing in stolen or looted cultural property.
  • There are a number of helpful resources to help market actors navigate these risks, including the Antiquities Coalition’s #BuyerBeware checklist, as well as materials put out by the Responsible Art Market Initiative in Geneva.
  • Law enforcement and other government players are conducting active outreach to the art market, and critically broadening their geographic focus to raise awareness in locations beyond New York.

The Antiquities Coalition thanks Homeland Security Investigations for including us in this event and looks forward to supporting other such programs in the future.

To learn more about the AC’s #BuyerBeware campaign, as well as other initiatives to combat cultural racketeering, click here.