Ten Most Wanted Antiquities List Featured by The Art Newspaper

The Antiquities Coalition’s Ten Most Wanted Antiquities list—our brand new “illustrated guide to some of the most significant looted, stolen, and missing artifacts from around the world”—was featured in an article published by The Art Newspaper on October 29.

TAN Editor Helen Stoilas interviewed Antiquities Coalition Chairman and Co-founder Deborah Lehr about the motivations behind the campaign.

“It was important, we believe, to highlight that there are still countless missing masterpieces in the world,” Antiquities Coalition Chairman and Co-founder Deborah Lehr told Stoilas. “Given the impact of social media, we wanted to reach out to the general public to raise awareness about these missing antiquities and enlist their support in finding them.”

The Antiquities Coalition consulted with leading experts to select the most “infamous cases of cultural racketeering,” Lehr said. “Based on the feedback, we chose to use high-profile missing items from different parts of the world to illustrate how this is a global issue that requires a global and widespread response.”

Among the cultural objects listed is an alabaster stone inscription, ripped from the floor of the Awam Temple between 2009 and 2011.

“Yemeni antiquities remain under critical threat due to the ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis,” Lehr said, referring to a report the Antiquities Coalition and Yemen released in March 2019, which showed that “more than 1,600 objects were missing just from the country’s museums due to looting.”

Lehr also referenced Yemen’s September 2019 requests for emergency import restrictions and a full memorandum of understanding. The former request was granted this February. As for the latter, Lehr said, “a full bilateral MOU is still a work in progress, and is much needed.”

An MOU is especially warranted in the chaotic era of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sparked a rise in looting and other illicit activities, as the Antiquities Coalition reported in May and August.

“Looters are taking advantage of the pandemic to pillage ancient artefacts from archaeological ruins, while art thieves target masterpieces in metropolitan museums,” Lehr said. “While the coronavirus has largely shuttered above-board dealers, galleries and auction houses, the international black market stays wide open for business.”

Many of these works have been missing for a number of years—but, according to Lehr, “there is always hope” that they will be recovered, as “access to technology may bring up new leads.”

“Social media allows us to reach out to the general public, who have shown great interest in this topic, and enlist their support to recover these missing treasures,” Lehr said.For more information about the Ten Most Wanted Antiquities list, including how you can help us locate missing cultural objects, click here.

Latest AC Story Map Seeks Some of the World’s Most Significant Looted or Stolen Artifacts

Countless antiquities have been looted or stolen over the course of history. More disappear into the black market every day. And each and every one represents an incalculable loss to our shared cultural heritage.

We at the Antiquities Coalition have chronicled some of the most infamous cases of cultural artifacts that have vanished without a trace in our October 29 story map release, Top Ten Most Wanted Antiquities: Significant Artifacts From Around the World That Have Been Looted or Stolen—and Are Still Missing.

For some of these masterpieces, it has been less than 15 years since their disappearance—and for others, more than 150—but, with your help, we hope to one day return all of them to their rightful homes.

For more information about AC’s Top Ten Most Wanted Antiquities, click here.

Antiquities Coalition Launches “Ten Most Wanted Antiquities” List

Campaign to Engage the Public in the Search for Missing Artifacts

WASHINGTON, October 29, 2020 — Today the Antiquities Coalition is releasing the Ten Most Wanted Antiquities list of significant artifacts from around the world that have been looted or stolen—and are still missing. Its intent is to highlight the global crime of cultural racketeering and enlist the public in the hunt for these missing treasures. 

The list is accompanied by posters of each object, published on the Antiquities Coalition’s website, which provide snapshots of the pieces’ significance, their theft, and their last known whereabouts. Any information leading to their possible recovery should be submitted to law enforcement using the tip lines below.

“Today, we’re shining a spotlight on these missing artifacts in the hopes that someone using this reference can help return them to their rightful owners,” said Deborah Lehr, chairman and founder of the Antiquities Coalition. “Sadly, these are just ten examples of a crime that continues to take place both around the clock and around the globe.”

The initial Ten Most Wanted Antiquities list—also detailed in our fourth Story Map release and our latest promotional video—features the following artifacts:

  • Kolomoki Mound Artifacts, United States of America
  • Statue of Ganesha, Cambodia
  • Peking Man, China
  • Old Summer Palace Zodiac Heads, China
  • Statue of Nefertiti Making Offerings, Egypt
  • Kwer’ata Re’esu Icon, Ethiopia
  • Río Azul Mask, Guatemala
  • Statue of Varaha, Vishnu’s Avatar, India
  • Lion Attacking a Nubian, Iraq
  • Alabaster Stone Inscription from Awam Temple, Yemen

While many of these objects disappeared years and even decades ago, much of the world’s heritage remains under threat from the illicit trade in cultural property, a risk that has only increased with the COVID-19 pandemic and recession. This list highlights particularly infamous cases, which were selected in consultation with leading experts, drawing from the countless items that have disappeared into the black market. The list will be updated on a regular basis to highlight other missing antiquities. The Antiquities Coalition encourages its followers to submit recommendations for other important missing artifacts.

If you have information, please contact the Antiquities Coalition or reach out directly to:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation 


Homeland Security Investigations 


About the Antiquities Coalition

AC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that is leading the international campaign against cultural racketeering, the illicit trade in ancient art and artifacts. It champions better law and policy, fosters diplomatic cooperation, and advances proven solutions with public and private partners worldwide to protect heritage. Learn more at theantiquitiescoalition.org.

“The Scope of Illegality is Growing”: The Atlantic Council Releases Report on Tackling Global Illicit Trade’s Threat to Society and Governance

Cultural racketeering is part of a broader system of illicit trade around the globe, from human trafficking to drug cartels. The illicit trade harms economies across the world, particularly in developing countries.

This is the subject of a recent report released by the Atlantic Council, titled “States on the cusp: Overcoming illicit trade’s corrosive effects in developing economies.” The report “explores the complex ways in which the illicit trade in otherwise licit goods (including alcohol, pharmaceuticals, luxury goods, cigarettes, electronics, and much more) threatens the stability, security, and prosperity of vulnerable states around the world.” 

On October 23, multiple experts—including Tuesday Reitano (Deputy Director, The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and co-author of the report), Simone Haysom (Senior Analyst, The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime), Franklin Binns (Pharmacist, Caja Costarricense del Seguro Social and Founder, www.microbiologiafarmaceutica.com), and Franck Chartier-Dumas (Business Development Director-SICPA)—discussed the report and its findings during a live webinar. 

It provides many lessons for those dedicated to the fight against cultural racketeering.

Key takeaways include:

The Illicit Trade is Growing: With the advent of the internet and social media, the market for illicitly produced and traded goods is expanding. The circulation of small-packaged goods via internet orders has doubled since 2019. This growth has also impacted cultural racketeering. For example, global access to the internet has led to an increase in the online trade of illicit antiquities. 

Oversight of the Illicit Trade is Declining: Free trade zones and ports limit government oversight. The amount of these “blind spots” globally is expanding. For example, there are currently 325 countries with Special Economic Zones (SEZs) or “freeports.” With each new freeport, the security of imports and exports in and out of a country decreases by 6%. UNESCO has identified freeports as “havens for stolen cultural property,” given that looted or stolen cultural goods can be held without investigation or consequence for any amount of time.

Consumer Awareness is a Key Tool to Fighting the Illicit Trade: Cultural racketeering is no exception. Those who purchase ancient art often have no way to validate whether or not a piece has been looted or stolen, and may unwittingly contribute to the destruction of the world’s shared cultural heritage. Educated buyers help protect antiquities and the legitimate art market. Please visit our website to learn more about the illicit trade in antiquities and how to combat looting. 

The Art of Financial Crime

Art crime is not limited to the looting of archaeological sites and the pillaging of museums. Because the arts and antiquities market is notoriously unregulated—particularly in the United States—bad actors have been able to use artworks and artifacts to engage in various financial crimes, including corruption, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, money laundering, sanctions violations, and even terrorist financing.

To bring attention to this often-overlooked issue, the Antiquities Coalition has gathered recent instances of financial crimes featuring art and antiquities and compiled them into a series of briefs, featured below:


Antiquities Dealers Arrested for Fraud Scheme

On September 22, 2020, Audrey Strauss, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and William F. Sweeney Jr., the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, announced the unsealing of an indictment in Manhattan federal court charging Erdal Dere, the owner and operator of the Manhattan-based antiquities gallery Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd., and his longtime business associate and co-conspirator, Faisal Khan, with engaging in a years-long scheme to defraud buyers and brokers in the antiquities market by using false provenances to offer and sell antiquities. Dere is also charged with aggravated identity theft for his misappropriation of the identities of deceased collectors who were falsely represented to be the prior owners of the antiquities.


Sparking The Art-Backed Lending Renaissance

Compared to the stock market, or even other alternative asset classes, art is a much more nuanced space for ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWI) to invest in—it is both extremely personal and almost entirely disconnected to the financial markets. In volatile market conditions, such as those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, art can be a safer asset class for investors to pour funds into. Not only does art offer a secure investment choice, but a growing number of UHNWIs are taking the opportunity to unlock liquidity by borrowing against their art (particularly in response to uncertainty as a result of the global pandemic).


Court-ordered auction of works from disgraced Brazilian banker’s collection prompts new controversy

On September 21, the James Lisboa Auction House began an online auction of the collection of works seized from Edemar Cid Ferreira. The art collection of bankrupt Banco Santos owner Edemar Cid Ferreira was seized in 2006 as a result of his conviction for crimes against the Brazilian national financing system and for money laundering. Following this seizure, 1,600 of the items were sent to the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo (MAC-USP) for storage and restoration. According to officials at MAC-USP, expenditures associated with the storage and restoration of the collection over the past 14 years has totalled over R$20 million ($3.6 million USD). MAC-USP has alleged that they are due R$20 million as repayment for the services rendered; however at the end of 2019, the courts ruled that the museum would receive only R$37,000 from the profits of the sale. The judge considered only the expenses that the museum was able to prove by means of invoices.


The FinCEN Files: ICIJ reveals “Mystery company ties accused temple raiders to art world elite”

According to indictments filed in New York last year, a network of art thieves and traffickers extracted thousands of precious relics from archaeological sites across Asia and sold them to museums, elite galleries and wealthy private buyers. Prosecutors say the group includes suppliers, restorers and New York art dealers who fabricated documents describing the origin of the antiquities to camouflage the looting. Amongst the FinCEN files is a confidential document that revealed the shell company Pantheon Worldwide Limited, that exchanged millions of dollars in cash and relics, while obscuring its purpose and registration location from its bank, Standard Chartered Bank, and their compliance officers.

For more information about the Pantheon Worldwide Limited findings, click here.


The FinCEN Files: Nepali banks and companies transact billions of rupees through dubious channels

Between December 2006 and March 2017, nine banks, 10 companies, and various individuals in Nepal were found to have transacted (sent/received) suspicious funds in the name of cross-border trade, linked to the international smuggling of gold, antiquities, bitumen, and telecommunication equipment. Additionally, over a period of 11 years, about a dozen Nepali companies were found to have directly sent or received suspicious funds totalling $292.7 million USD.

In response to an untold number of illegal acts not unlike the above examples, the Antiquities Coalition convened a diverse group of experts to form the Financial Crimes Task Force, which developed guidelines that the U.S. government, the U.S. financial industry, the international community, and the U.S. arts and antiquities sector can use to prevent financial crimes using artworks and artifacts.

For more information about the Financial Crimes Task Force and its recent report, click here.

Executive Director Tess Davis Discusses Money Laundering and the Art Market at American Bar Association’s Tele-Coffee

In July 2020, a U.S. Senate report exposed how the art market’s continuing exemption from standard laws and regulations had gifted Russian oligarchs with an easy backdoor into the world’s biggest economy, evading U.S. sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

AC Executive Director Tess Dsvis discussed this report at the ABA Arts & Cultural Heritage Law Committee Tele-Coffee series on October 22. The committee is made up of attorneys who work in a variety of settings and considers topics related to the international trade in antiquities, underwater cultural heritage, artworks stolen during the Holocaust, and more.  

Key takeaways include:

The American Art Market’s Continuing Exemption from Standard Laws and Regulations Gives Bad Actors a Backdoor into the U.S. Economy: The report, and many others, refer to the $28.3 billion American art market as the largest unregulated industry in the United States and arguably the world. It is not yet subject to the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), the United States’ primary anti-money laundering (AML) law. The BSA requires high-risk individuals and institutions to assist the U.S. government in detecting and preventing financial crimes. In addition to businesses one would expect, such as banks, the statute also applies to groups such as sellers of precious metals, stones, and jewels; sellers of automobiles, planes, and boats; casinos; real estate professionals; travel agencies; and pawn shops. However, despite having a similar business model to pawn shops, billion dollar companies like the major auction houses do not have to comply. This case shows that this current art market exemption is not working for our national security and economic integrity, and it is not working for the art market.

Criminals Can Take Advantage of the Art Market’s Tradition of Trust and Secrecy: The Rotenbergs were able to launder at least $18 million through leading New York auction houses and private dealers, taking advantage of art market discretion and using shell companies and art intermediaries. This practice makes it difficult to know who owns the art and who owns the companies dealing the art. 

The U.S. Must Take Action: The EU, UK, and Switzerland have all already taken action and applied their AML regimes to the art market. U.S. dealers operating in Europe—which, given the art market’s global nature, is likely a large number—need to be thinking about these rules already. Unfortunately, if the U.S. doesn’t act, it may continue to be a safe haven for criminals like the Rotenbergs. Adding the AML infrastructure to the art market does more than just help identify and prevent money laundering—it would help with the full scope of financial crimes, such as sanction evasion. That said, this is just a first step—there is much more that the US government can be doing to work with the private sector to safeguard our national security, economic integrity, and the vast majority of responsible collectors, dealers, auction houses, and museums. 

International Consortium of Investigative Journalists Quotes AC Executive Director Tess Davis in Groundbreaking Report

A “shadowy shell company” known as Pantheon Worldwide Limited has conducted several million dollars worth of transactions in cash and antiquities with alleged art traffickers, according to a recent development in the “FinCEN Files” investigation, which took the global anti-money laundering industry by storm when its findings were published last month.

In “Mystery company ties accused temple raiders to art world elite,” Spencer Woodman, a reporter with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, breaks down the key findings of a suspicious activity report that had been leaked to BuzzFeed News and shared with ICIJ.

According to Woodman’s analysis, Pantheon Worldwide Limited’s operations—reportedly based in London and Hong Kong—were a mystery not only to Hong Kong authorities, but also to the bank compliance officers of the London-based Standard Chartered Bank, with which Pantheon maintained three accounts.

“They were uncertain about the purpose of the company and didn’t even seem to know where it was registered—the most basic information needed to assess whether it might be a front for money laundering or other financial crime,” Woodman wrote.

To better understand this stark lack of transparency—long considered key to the status quo of the art world—and how it promotes the looting and trafficking of art and antiquities, Woodman interviewed Antiquities Coalition Executive Director Tess Davis.

“Archaeological sites around the world are being destroyed on an industrial scale,” Davis said. “We are losing chapters of history.”

This report is just one product of a 16-month-long investigation by ICIJ, BuzzFeed News, and 108 other media partners in 88 countries, which explored a slew of secret financial intelligence reports—including more than 2,100 suspicious activity reports—that had been filed with the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

According to a summary article by ICIJ Project Manager and Editor Fergus Shiel and ICIJ Senior Editor Dean Starkman, “The findings expose – from the inside – the consequences of allowing banks themselves to lead the world’s anti-money laundering defenses against kleptocracy, crime and terror, even as they earn huge profits from these same malefactors. They also show how laundered money provides the lifeblood for corrupt authoritarian regimes and the enemies of democracy worldwide.”

One of the major loopholes criminals use to launder money in the United States is the Bank Secrecy Act’s exemption for art and antiquities dealers, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations concluded in an August report. Without the regulation afforded by the BSA, art and antiquities dealers are under no obligation to assist the U.S. government in preventing and detecting financial crimes.

To help the U.S. government stamp financial crime out of the $28.3 billion U.S. art market, the Antiquities Coalition’s nonpartisan think tank convened the Financial Crimes Task Force. This diverse group of experts worked to create 44 recommendations for the U.S. government, the U.S. financial industry, the U.S. art and antiquities sector and the international community. The policies, practices and priorities it released on September 24—including a call for Congress to explicitly apply the BSA to dealers in cultural property—can be implemented to protect the American art market from money laundering, terrorist financing, sanctions violations, tax evasion, fraud, forgery, and related crimes.

For more information about the Financial Crimes Task Force and its recent report, click here.

Financial Crimes Task Force Report Featured by Thomson Reuters

The Financial Crimes Task Force report was featured in a news article on September 28 by Thomson Reuters, described as “the world’s leading provider of news and information-based tools to professionals.”

Devised by a diverse group of experts, the Financial Crimes Task Force report features 44 recommendations for how the U.S. government, the U.S. financial industry, the international community and the U.S. art and antiquities sector can work together to keep financial crimes out of the $28.3 billion dollar American art market.

In addition to describing the contents of the report, article author Brett Wolf pulls quotes from our September 24 online release event, highlighting a moment in which Antiquities Coalition Founder and Chairman Deborah Lehr described the core issue behind how the U.S. handles the sales of art and antiquities.

“In the art market, it’s one of the only transactions to date where the buyer and the seller can still be anonymous, and we’re talking transactions that can sometimes reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars; there is the room for mischief,” Lehr said.

Wolf also quoted AC Executive Director Tess Davis, who emphasized during the webinar that the recommendations were not meant to harm law-abiding collectors, dealers and auction houses.

“This is about protecting the market from those who would exploit these weaknesses,” Davis said.

The full article is currently only available to clients subscribed to Thomson Reuters Regulatory Intelligence, a resource solution that Thomson Reuters promotes in its brochure as delivering “global coverage of over 1,000 regulatory bodies and more than 2,500 collections of regulatory and legislative materials.”

For more information about the Financial Crimes Task Force and its recent report, click here.

BSA Must Be Applied to Arts and Antiquities Dealers, AC Founder and Chairman Deborah Lehr Tells the Council on Foreign Relations

The United States needs to apply the Bank Secrecy Act to art and antiquities dealers in order to stop financial criminals from abusing the $28.3 billion American art market, Antiquities Coalition Founder and Chairman Deborah Lehr stressed while participating in an October 7 webinar.

The closed-door online event, organized by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), was organized to educate staff and members of the U.S. Congress on the importance of combating the illicit antiquities trade and other crimes in the global art market. 

A recent report from the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations referred to the art market as “the largest legal, unregulated market in the United States.” While the Bank Secrecy Act requires similar at-risk industries (e.g., dealers in precious metals, stones and jewels; sellers of automobiles, planes and boats; casinos; real estate professionals; travel agencies; pawnshops) to assist the U.S. government in preventing and detecting financial crimes, the art and antiquities market is currently exempt from this regulation. As Lehr wrote in an August op-ed for The Hill, “The art market is particularly vulnerable to abuse by organized criminals and terrorists, with its multibillion-dollar scale and long-standing culture of secrecy. It is no longer rational to exempt it from common-sense protections.”

CFR—an independent, nonpartisan member organization, think tank, and publisher—was founded in 1921 “to start a conversation in this country about the need for Americans to better understand the world.” It focuses on foreign policy and international affairs and seeks to serve as a resource to those in government and other policy makers. It previously spoke to the Antiquities Coalition about the illicit trade in “blood antiquities” for the podcast Why It Matters.

We thank the CFR for their continuing interest in this topic, which is important to both our global security and world heritage.

Financial Crimes Task Force Report Featured by Global Investigative Journalism Network

The Antiquities Coalition’s Financial Crimes Task Force report was featured in a weekly news compilation on October 2 by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, described as “an international association of journalism organizations that support the training and sharing of information among investigative and data journalists—with special attention to those from repressive regimes and marginalized communities.”

Devised by a diverse group of experts, the Financial Crimes Task Force 2020 report features 44 recommendations for how the U.S. government, the financial industry, the international community and the art and antiquities sector can work together to keep financial crimes out of the $28.3 billion dollar American art market.

GIJN Managing Editor Tanya Pampalone wrote this synopsis for the “What We’re Reading” news compilation:

Here’s a big number you probably weren’t aware of: The US art market is worth $28.3 billion. According to The Antiquities Coalition and its Financial Crimes Task Force, this is the largest unregulated market in the world, making it vulnerable to a wide range of international financial crimes. From Monets to van Goghs, artworks are often used as tools to launder cash for drug smugglers, kleptocrats, white-collar embezzlers, and terrorists. Their study, released last week, details some of the risks, including terrorist financing, sanctions violations, tax evasion, fraud and forgeries. Also included are 44 recommendations for the US government, the art market, the financial industry, and the international community — plenty of material for journalists to dig into.

For more information about the Financial Crimes Task Force and its recent report, click here.