AC Executive Director Tess Davis Condemns Museums Displaying Relics without Provenance in LA Times Article

While working on his doctorate at Burapha University in Thailand, archaeologist Tanongsak Hanwong encountered a surplus of evidence that two massive stone lintels possessed by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco were rightfully the property of Thailand, journalist Jennifer Lu reported in a March 26 article for the Los Angeles Times.

Beginning in 2016, Tanongsak fought for the repatriation of these lintels and other stolen Thai relics with an online campaign, which drew the attention of Thailand’s government.

Thai officials eventually joined with Tanongsak in 2017 to organize a formal repatriation committee, which discovered that the lintels had almost certainly been unlawfully gouged out of two of Thailand’s protected temples and smuggled abroad sometime after 1959. By the late 1960’s, they had both been purchased by Fifth International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage and installed in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco—all without any evidence of legal export.

It is important to note that this negligence is not limited to this one case, collector, or museum,  stressed AC Executive Director Tess Davis, whom Lu interviewed for the story. According to Davis, it is an industry-wide problem.

“The next time you go into a museum, see how many antiquities are hacked off at the feet or the head, how few can be pinpointed to a specific location,” Davis told Lu. “In what world, other than the art world, is it so acceptable to buy stolen goods?”

While Brundage died in 1975, existing documentation and photo comparisons offered enough evidence to compel Thai officials to reach out to the U.S. government.

After spending three years fighting repatriation efforts, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco promised in February that it would return the lintels to Thailand. As of March 26, the institution had one more vote to hold before it could complete the deaccessioning process and transfer the lintels to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s not often that we have an opportunity, as individuals or institutions, to right some of history’s wrongs,” Davis told Lu. “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”

Upon receiving the lintels, Thailand plans to exhibit them at the Bangkok National Museum for several months. Their destination thereafter has yet to be determined, but according to Tanongsak, their presence in Thailand will enhance understanding of Khmer culture.

AC Organizes Panel at OECD Forum on Fighting Corruption in the Global Art Market

The Antiquities Coalition, a Knowledge Partner of the virtual 2021 OECD Global Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum, organized and hosted a panel on “Fighting corruption in the global art market.”

The global art market, valued at an estimated USD 64.1 billion, is a rapidly growing trade with weak regulations. Gaps in regulations have threatened the integrity of the market, leaving it increasingly vulnerable to corruption and criminal use. 

This discussion featured speakers from the Antiquities Coalition’s Financial Crimes Task Force, including Liz Fracarro (AC Project Director), Tess Davis (AC Executive Director) and Michael Loughnane (President, Loughnane Associates), who explored the documented risks facing the art market. Speakers examined how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of the legal art market — particularly the rapid growth in art lending and art’s attractiveness to ultra-high-net-worth individuals during periods of market volatility — as well as the pandemic’s impact on market stakeholders, governments, and policy makers. Presenting case studies, the panelists addressed  what was learned from historical use by corrupt actors to manipulate the art sector as a means to store and move value through art, coming regulations and impact, and what remains to be done.

Watch the full discussion here.

Think Tank Releases Interactive Practicum Lesson Series: “How Can We Advance the Cause of Protecting Cultural Heritage and Antiquities? Leverage Public Awareness Campaigns”

Learn Directly from the Experts with AC’s Newest Think Tank Release

In the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank publication released on February 25, “How Can We Advance The Cause of Protecting Cultural Heritage and Antiquities? Leverage Public Awareness Campaigns,” Claire Buchan Parker—a strategic communications expert, former White House spokesperson, and vice chair of the Antiquities Coalition Board of Directors—creates a blueprint for how to develop a successful public awareness campaign. 

However, how does one actually go about creating and implementing an effective public awareness campaign? It is a practical question for every mission-driven organization—and to answer it, Parker teamed up with Antiquities Coalition Co-founders Deborah Lehr and Peter Herdrich to develop a free video series based on her practicum. The series contains three video lessons, each with an accompanying quiz. Those who complete the practicum receive a digital certificate.

Today, the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank is pleased to release the first of three video lessons, “How to Form an Effective Message.” In this lesson, Parker covers how to develop a specific call to action for your organization, and why doing so is important to a campaign’s success. Click here to begin.

Further lessons will be released across our social media platforms in the near future. In the meantime, the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank wants to hear from you: What are topics you would like to see the Antiquities Coalition raise awareness about? Let us know through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube.



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.

Learn more at

One Year Later: COVID-19 and Cultural Racketeering

One year ago today, the World Health Organization declared that it had recognized the international outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 as a global pandemic. The COVID-19 virus continues to spread and affect millions around the world. While an end may be in sight due to vaccination developments, the number of cases and deaths globally have reached devastating numbers. 

The Antiquities Coalition has continued monitoring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the market in arts and artifacts—licit and illicit—as well as the arts and culture sector more broadly. This update follows our posts from May and August 2020, further demonstrating how COVID-19 continues to put cultural heritage at grave risk, while also affecting the global trade in cultural property.

Sites Suffer Worldwide as Vandalism and Looting Continue

Antiquities at sites in museums worldwide continue to be at risk due to the pandemic. In November, Ernesto Ottone, assistant director general for culture at UNESCO, summarized the current moment: “more looting, less information, fewer missions, fewer controls.”

Around the world, looting, trafficking, and vandalism have continued. In South America, guards discovered a break-in at the Cañete Mapuche Museum in Chile, where thieves had stolen more than 100 Mapuche silver, fabric, and stone artifacts. The September theft revealed a potential black market for South American indigenous material. In Europe, on October 3, vandals attacked several of Berlin’s major museums, hitting about 70 artifacts across with an oily substance, which German media has linked to “a conspiracy theory propagated by coronavirus deniers.” The perpetrators have not been caught. In the Middle East, also in October, reports in Iraq indicated a “renewed wave” of site looting due to the economic crisis compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Al-Qadisiyah University Archaeologist and Assistant Professor Salah Hatem remarked, “Unquestionably, the pandemic and the economic situation, which was worsened by the pandemic, caused a surge in looting activity in Iraq.” In Southeast Asia, photos published in October documented devastating illicit digging for beads and small scale antiquities in Myanmar. 

Incidents have continued as the year drew to a close. In November, a judge working in the judiciary of the Syrian government in the city of Homs was arrested for smuggling antiquities including small statues, pottery, and engraved panels. In December, a woman was arrested in Greece for looting amphorae pieces, thought to have come from Knidos. Later that month, Egyptian officials reported that illegal excavating in the country had more than doubled this year since the outbreak of COVID-19. The interior ministry reported 8,960 cases of illegal digging from March through November, up from 4,115 cases during the same time frame last year. 

In France, a man was accused of being “one of the greatest archaeological looters in European history” after French officials found over 27,000 objects during a raid on his home. The objects included ancient coins, jewelry, statues, and more. 

From The Guardian: “Some of the thousands of objects found when French officials raided Patrice T’s house.” (Image Credit: Douane Française)

Antiquities looting has also occurred in the United States as when $11,000 worth of artifacts were stolen from the Mud Island River Museum in October. The museum, located in Memphis, Tennessee, has been closed throughout the pandemic. Park rangers have also noticed an increase in illegal digging for artifacts in Arkansas, leading them to publish a warning in early November that looking for antiquities on public property is illegal.

This phenomenon has extended beyond antiquities—a wave of WWII memorabilia thefts have swept European museums in recent months. In August, thieves broke into the Eyewitness Museum in the Netherlands, taking with them $1.75 million worth of historic artifacts. An October theft of more than $1 million worth of historic artifacts from the Oorlogsmuseum in Ossendrecht, including 23 mannequins dressed in uniforms, followed. In November, thieves stole 20 Nazi artifacts from the Deutsches Museum Nordschleswig in Sønderborg, Denmark.

Struggling Museums in Crisis Around the Globe

Across the United States, some museums have reopened at reduced capacity, but virtually all are now facing huge financial challenges. In New York City, where museums are open at 25% capacity, the picture is dire. The ability for institutions to survive will depend on the size of their endowments, government funding, and limited ticket sales. Museums in the Twin Cities, facing a significant drop in attendance even below the 25% capacity, are carrying a relentless financial burden that may lead to closures. In Europe, struggling museums are shutting down again in accordance with a second wave of lockdowns in countries where cases are rising. With plans to reopen unknown, the fate of European museums remains uncertain. In November, Scotland’s representative bodies for museums warned that many Scottish museums will not make it through the pandemic.

With the overall functioning of museums in crisis, the day-to-day operations of museums have been hit hard. Museum conservators have been unable to travel to work on objects that need care and attention, leaving them at risk for further damage. And the picture remains bleak. Laura Lott, President and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums was quoted: “Depressingly, I think 2021 is going to be as hard, if not harder, than last year.”

The Art Market Faces Challenges and Opportunities

Art Basel’s 2020 mid-year survey of “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Gallery Sector” shed light on many of the challenges the market is facing due to the pandemic. The survey showed that the average value of sales fell 36% during the first six months of 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019. In addition, a third of galleries reported that they downsized their staff in the first half of 2020. 

The survey also indicated some new opportunities for the market. The share of online sales rose from 10% in the first half of 2019 to 37% in the first half of 2020. Also, high net worth (HNW) collectors remained active, with 92% having purchased a work of art in the first six months of 2020 despite the pandemic. 59% of surveyed HNW collectors indicated that the pandemic has increased their interest in collecting. 

In fact, Sotheby’s and Christie’s closed 2020 with $5 billion and $4.4 billion in global sales respectively, both setting records for online and private sales. 

Other gallerists echoed the boom in sales. Los Angeles gallerist François Ghebaly was quoted saying, “The market is raging.” He added that 2020 was his best year ever in sales and profits.

Moving Into 2021

As 2020 ended and the new year began, and vaccinations begin to be administered, there have been some positive developments in the world of art and antiquities: 

  • In October, the French National Assembly voted to approve the restitution of 27 colonial-era artifacts in museums to Benin and Senegal within one year.
  • After suffering destructive attacks by the Islamic State in 2014, the Mosul Museum has reopened.
  • Turkey reported in December that 11.5 million people visited 32 museums and historical sites throughout the country using the government’s digital platform. Explore them yourself here:
  • In December, U.S. Congress passed a bill to fund the creation of new Smithsonian museums on women’s and Latino history.
  • In January, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (NDAA) was passed by the United States Congress, beginning to close regulatory loopholes that have made the American art market one of the largest unregulated markets in the world. The bill, H.R. 6395, removed antiquities dealers’ current exemption from what are now standard anti-money laundering (AML) laws and regulations under the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).
  • In February, a new study claimed that visitors to museums were at a far lower risk of catching COVID-19 than at restaurants, supermarkets, or offices.

Looking Ahead

Thanks to international vaccine rollout efforts, we can finally see the end of the COVID-19 pandemic on the horizon. Unfortunately, though, herd immunity will not mark the end of the art world’s pandemic woes. Inevitably, months of neglect will have led some cultural heritage sites to suffer permanent damage, months of lost revenue will prevent many museums from ever reopening their doors to the public, and months of unchecked looting and theft will have resulted in an untold number of antiquities being lost to cultural racketeers.

That said, the arts and culture have proved to be resilient through crisis after crisis, and COVID-19 will be no exception. It may take time and, indeed, there may be no returning to the “normal” we knew prior to this pandemic. But there may also be new opportunities—for heritage to be part of the post-COVID financial recovery and to contribute to the rebuilding of both local neighborhoods and the global economy. And its value will go far beyond dollars: in a post-COVID landscape—with the world starved for human contact, education, and entertainment—the arts and culture will be needed more than ever.

FinCEN Releases Notice Explaining New AML Act

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network issued a notice to financial institutions on March 9, informing them about how the art market will be affected by the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020, which was enacted into law with the January 1 passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. 

The notice reiterates Section 6110(a) of the AML Act, which the Antiquities Coalition explained in a January 1 press release. This measure amends the Bank Secrecy Act’s definition of “financial institution”—which already included banks, casinos, real estate professionals, travel agencies, and pawn shops, as well as sellers of precious metals, stones, jewels, automobiles, planes, and boats—to include antiquities dealers. Once FinCEN finishes implementing regulations, antiquities dealers will have to assist the U.S. government in detecting and preventing financial crimes. 

Unfortunately, this expanded definition will not include dealers in other forms of art, as the Antiquities Coalition explained in a January 1 blog post. Instead, as FinCEN mentions in its notice, Section 6110(c) of the AML Act requires the U.S. Department of Treasury and its law enforcement partners to conduct a study on the risks posed by the facilitation of money laundering and terrorist financing through the art market. 

The notice also makes other financial institutions aware of how the art market’s illicit activities have outreaching effects. 

“Financial institutions with existing BSA obligations, including the reporting of suspicious activity, should be aware that illicit activity associated with the trade in antiquities and art may involve their institutions,” the notice reads. “Crimes relating to antiquities and art may include looting or theft, the illicit excavation of archaeological items, smuggling, and the sale of stolen or counterfeit Crimes relating to antiquities and art also may include money laundering and sanctions violations, and have been linked to transnational criminal networks, international terrorism, and the persecution of individuals or groups on cultural grounds.” 

In a footnote for this passage, FinCEN cites numerous research reports and government advisories, including the Rotenberg report released in July 2020 by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the guidance released by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in October 2020. 

The report concludes with specific instructions on how financial institutions, such as antiquities dealers, can file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) regarding illicit activity in the art market. For more information, download the full notice here

It is important to note that the mandates of the AML Act are not foolproof, and certain issues remain unaddressed. Until sufficient regulations for antiquities dealers are finalized, and until all dealers in cultural property are subject to the regulations of the Bank Secrecy Act, our mission to advocate for laws that protect art and antiquities from misuse by financial criminals will remain incomplete.

Nevertheless, the AML Act has helped to close several of the art market’s major loopholes. Such major legislative changes were made possible in part by the Antiquities Coalition, whose 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 in September 2020—including, but not limited to, a call for Congress to explicitly apply the BSA to all 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.

Webinar Registration: Digitization of Privately Held Materials

Throughout the Maghreb region, cultural heritage is under threat.

Important archaeological objects, archival materials, rare manuscripts, and intangible heritage that are held in family or private collections have not been spared. In addition, these materials often do not have the advantages of professional conservation, security, climate-controlled storage, and care that collections in national institutions enjoy. These collections are in many cases unknown, except by owners and close associates, and have not been studied or displayed. 

To protect these important materials, experts from across the Maghreb are working to safeguard these privately owned collections through digitization. They face challenges in this effort – distrust of outsiders, concern that materials might be confiscated, and fear that by revealing the existence of rare and valuable manuscripts, they will become the target of violent extremists and other criminals.

On March 9, join The Antiquities Coalition, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State, the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, and the Metropolitan New York Library Council, for a live panel discussion on “Digitization of Privately Held Materials.” We will look at challenges and solutions, both for policy and for the practicalities of digitization and cultural heritage preservation.

This event will feature a Keynote address from Father Columba Stewart, the Executive Director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML), in conversation with Abdelhamid Salah, the Director of the Egyption Heritage Rescue Fund. In his role as HMML Executive Director, Fr. Columba travels extensively throughout the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and South Asia cultivating relationships with communities possessing manuscript collections from the early medieval to early modern periods. Under his leadership, HMML’s manuscript preservation projects have increased from one project in Lebanon to projects located in more than a dozen countries. During this time, HMML has photographed tens of thousands of manuscripts in many of the world’s most dangerous and difficult-to-reach places and given priority to preserving the manuscript collections of persecuted or endangered minorities. 

HMML was awarded the 2011 National Medal of Honor from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the highest award a library can receive in the United States. And, he was named by the NEH as the 2019 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

This event will also include a panel discussion led by Dr. Charles Henry, with representatives from Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.