Think Tank Considers How to Advance the Cause of Protecting Cultural Heritage

New Antiquities Coalition Think Tank Publication Outlines What It Takes to Build a Strong Messaging Campaign for Cultural Heritage Preservation

In the just released AC Think Tank publication, strategic communications expert, former White House spokesperson, and Vice Chair of the AC Board of Directors Claire Buchan Parker creates a blueprint for how to develop a successful public awareness campaign. 

Ms. Parker poses: “Just as art thieves and cultural racketeers are taking advantage of new communication vehicles to sell valuable stolen treasures, those of us who are committed to preserving antiquities can harness those same tools and others to raise awareness and protect cultural heritage.”

The practical advice penned by Ms. Parker highlights successful public awareness campaigns such as Global Witness’s “Blood Diamonds” report and WildAid’s anti-ivory campaign. Using these as examples, our expert isolates the most impactful aspects of each campaign and underscores how each was able to change public perception so successfully.

Ms. Parker argues that a distinctive message combined with a strong call to action and deliberate use of media is the best way for a campaign to raise awareness about cultural heritage to succeed. In addition to these findings, the author offers several critical recommendations based on her four case studies and expertise in this area of public relations.

For a summary and link to the publication:



About the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank

The Antiquities Coalition unites a diverse group of experts in the international campaign against cultural racketeering, the illicit trade in art and antiquities. This plunder for profit funds crime, conflict, and violent extremist organizations around the world. By championing better law and policy, fostering diplomatic cooperation, and advancing proven solutions with public and private partners worldwide, the Antiquities Coalition empowers communities and countries in crisis to safeguard cultural heritage for future generations. 

Launched in 2016, the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank joins forces with international experts, including leaders in the fields of preservation, business, law, security, and technology, to bring high-quality, results-oriented research to the world’s decision-makers, especially those in the government and private sectors. Policy briefs strive to strengthen policy makers’ understanding of the challenges facing collective human heritage, and to help them develop better solutions to protect it. The views expressed in these policy briefs are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Antiquities Coalition.

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AC Executive Director Tess Davis Calls for Strengthened Due Diligence in The Australian

The National Gallery of Australia has declined to reveal what it knows about the provenance of three of its collection’s statues due to a “past agreement,” journalist Michaela Boland first reported in The Australian on February 16. A more in-depth follow-up piece was published soon after.

In 2011, the NGA paid $1.5 million for the 50-centimeter-tall gilt bronze Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Padmapani figure, which it has been described on the NGA’s website as “the finest and most intact Cham bronze known,” and two 30-centimeter-tall attendants. All three are presumed to have been made by the Cham people of Vietnam in the 9th or 10th centuries.

However, these artifacts have not been on display since 2016.

“The chain of ownership for this object is being reviewed and further research is underway,” the NGA’s website reads.

Prior to the NGA’s purchase, John Guy—which The Australian has described as “one of the world authorities on Southeast Asian antiquities”—claimed in The Cham of Vietnam: History, Society and Art that these artifacts had likely been “recovered by illicit diggers” in Vietnam and eventually trafficked by disgraced art dealer Douglas Latchford.

“Any object associated with Douglas Latchford should be considered a conflict antiquity until proven otherwise,” Antiquities Coalition Executive Director Tess Davis told The Australian, which referred to the Antiquities Coalition as “the world’s foremost organisation combating cultural racketeering.”

“Latchford was the mastermind of an infamous criminal network, which plundered countless masterpieces from the war zones of Southeast Asia and trafficked them into the art world’s top collections. Since 2012 he was in the crosshairs of American prosecutors, and he died last year under a felony indictment fighting extradition to New York,” Davis explained. “His customers can no longer feign plausible deniability. The NGA and the many other museums with Latchford’s loot have now had years to do the right thing. Any objects with any ties to him should have long been treated as stolen property until proven otherwise. The link to him alone should have sounded every alarm.”

This is not the first time the NGA has taken an artifact with dubious provenance into its collection. Detailed information about several of the NGA’s questionable acquisitions—including much more about the Cham statue controversy—can be found in Boland’s stories, linked again here and here.

“The NGA’s behaviour is negligent at best and an affront to both the Vietnamese people and Australian taxpayers,” Davis told The Australian. “It’s also incredibly damaging to the legitimate art market, which is already struggling against growing accusations of antiquities trafficking, money laundering and even terrorist financing.”

For more information on these growing accusations, check out our Financial Crimes Task Force Report.

Financial Crimes Task Force Report Cited in Harvard Fellow’s Art Market Analysis

The Antiquities Coalition’s Financial Crimes Task Force Report was cited in an art market analysis by Michael B. Greenwald, a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The Art Market’s Next Inflection Point,” published on the Belfer Center’s website on February 8, opened by examining how the American art market’s “traditional culture of anonymity and opaque valuations process”—which Greenwald described with more detail in a previous analysis—has historically discouraged any increase in regulations. The ensuing lack of market protections made the American art world a playground for bad actors like the Rotenbergs, enabling a wide range of financial crimes.

Congress took a major step to resolve this dilemma on January 1 by passing the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (NDAA), which removed antiquities dealers’ exemption from otherwise standard anti-money laundering (AML) laws and regulations under the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).

However, as Greenwald observed in his analysis, the NDAA’s enhancement of the BSA will not result in significant improvement automatically.

“Though it certainly draws awareness to the problem and holds the art market under the same standards as the other industries and entities listed above, it does not create any new bodies to enforce these regulatory measures,” Greenwald wrote. “As a result, what we are left with is a step in the right direction, however there is much more ground to cover.”

Greenwald then drew attention to the Antiquities Coalition, noting that we have “taken a strong stance against criminals exploiting the American art market” and, through our Financial Crimes Task Force Report, made “several strong recommendations to improve existing regulation and strengthen the new declaration in the BSA.”

He highlighted a few of the Financial Crimes Task Force Report’s recommendations, in particular, that “focus on long term education processes and the appointment of high-level officials”—and, as such, hold the potential to have “substantial, lasting impact on corrupt wealth moving through art.”

As Greenwald moved to wrap up his analysis, he wrote that the U.S. Treasury needs to issue additional regulations for antiquities and conduct a risk assessment on the art sector.

“Without the institution of concrete actions and regulatory bodies following up on this legislation, the art loophole will continue to exist,” Greenwald concluded. “Cooperation between the private and public sectors will be necessary if we want to continue squeezing the stream of illicit funds that travel across the globe. Just as gold and cash are stores of wealth, we need to remember that art has a similar function—when it comes to money laundering and terrorism, it must be treated as such.”

To access the full Financial Crimes Task Force Report, including all 44 of its recommendations, click here.

Dr. Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak, a Fierce Advocate for Cultural Heritage, Appointed Foreign Minister of Yemen

The Antiquities Coalition congratulates H.E. Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak on his appointment as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Yemen after serving for more than five years as the country’s Ambassador to the United States.

During his tenure as Ambassador, H.E. Mubarak worked tirelessly to protect Yemen’s rich cultural heritage from the many bad actors seeking to use the conflict embroiling the country as an opportunity to loot, smuggle, and sell its priceless artifacts.

As part of the effort, Antiquities Coalition Founder and Chairman Deborah Lehr published an op-ed with H.E. Mubarak in the Washington Post, calling for the Treasury Department to use its authorities to issue an emergency executive order adding Yemeni antiquities to the list of sanctioned items prevented from import to the United States.

Published on January 1, 2019, the op-ed garnered the attention of many prominent figures, including Eliot Engel, then the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and NPR’s Leila Fadel, who amplified the call for emergency sanctions.

H.E. Mubarak’s efforts to preserve Yemen’s art and antiquities did not stop there. He supported efforts by the Antiquities Coalition to release a report containing the records of 1,631 objects that had gone missing from Yemen’s museums during its recent years of conflict with Houthi militias and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with the goal of engaging the art market, law enforcement, museums, and the public to help to recover these blood antiquities.

“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,” H.E. Mubarak said. “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.”

H.E. Mubarak was also instrumental in securing his country’s ratification of the main international treaty to combat the looting and trafficking of art and antiquities, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. With this accomplished, Yemen was able to request a bilateral agreement with the United States under the U.S. Cultural Property Implementation Act, which it did immediately. The U.S. government responded for H.E. Mubarak’s calls for action—and, in February 2020, announced that it would impose “emergency import restrictions on certain archaeological and ethnological material from the Republic of Yemen,” requiring those importing at-risk Yemeni cultural material into the United States to provide proof that it left the country before that date or legally after it.

We hope that Minister Mubarak will continue his role as a leader in protecting cultural heritage as he takes on his new responsibilities, and we wish him much success.

Antiquities Coalition Highlights Need for U.S.–Turkey Bilateral Agreement in The Art Newspaper

The Antiquities Coalition recognized the merits of the recent cultural memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the United States and Turkey in comments published on February 3 in The Art Newspaper.

“For the [UNESCO] treaty to have domestic effect under American law, an MOU is needed,” Antiquities Coalition Executive Director Tess Davis told journalist Ayla Jean Yackley, referring to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which the Antiquities Coalition explored in a recent story map celebrating the treaty’s fiftieth anniversary. “US import restrictions can deal a major blow against the global black market in looted Turkish antiquities.”

The import restrictions, which the United States and Turkey signed on January 19, apply to certain archaeological and ethnological materials—including various kinds of archaeological materials created between 1,200,000 BC and AD 1770, as well as various kinds of ethnological materials created between the 1st century AD and 1923—that have not been licensed by the Turkish government for legal exportation.

While this agreement does not advance Turkey’s efforts to repatriate the thousands of antiquities it has already lost—many, presumably, to Western collectors and museums—it will facilitate responsible cultural exchange for years to come.

The agreement is not without controversy, as opponents of the MOU argue that Turkey has not fulfilled its obligations as a State Party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, alleging that the country has failed to provide adequate protections for the cultural heritage of its minority groups.

In response to that perspective, Davis told Yackley that this MOU can be a “powerful tool,” having the potential to encourage Turkey to make greater strides in defending the cultural heritage of all of its peoples.

“Advocates for minority cultural heritage in Turkey should view this MOU not as an obstacle but as a stepping stone to further their critical work,” Davis said. “It gives them a mechanism to make their voices heard and realise much-needed change.”