Putting a Price on the Priceless: Measuring the Illicit Antiquities Trade in Data and Dollars

This year, the G20 has prioritized the protection of cultural heritage and the prevention of illicit trafficking, holding a historic Ministerial Meeting in Rome on July 29 and 30. 

As heads of state and government turn a global spotlight on the illicit trade in cultural property, it is more important than ever that policymakers and law enforcement fully understand the problem. But how can we quantify looting, smuggling, and related crimes? What data sources can be used? Is the absence of evidence actually evidence of absence? What harm is caused by cultural racketeering beyond a dollar amount—to the legitimate art market, global security, and human rights? 

Top experts came together to discuss these questions and more during a live webinar on July 26. Co-sponsored by the Antiquities Coalition and George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center (TraCCC), the webinar was attended by more than 150 individuals from around the world.

Speakers including Louise Shelley, Layla Hashemi, Neil Brodie, and Ute Wartenberg covered the direct and indirect effects of the illicit trade in a panel moderated by Patrick Costello. 


Key Takeaways included:

  • Illicit Trade Thrives In Unstable Environments: Looting and trafficking pose major problems to fragile states with a weak peace and security balance. Finding a resolution to such post-conflict situations proves extremely difficult. Hashemi argued that proceeds from illegal antiquities fuel terrorism and conflict and converge with global problems of corruption, drug and weapon trading, and money laundering, all of which pose large financial revenue opportunities for criminals. 
  • Free Ports Are Playground For Illicit Market: With false documentation and forged records, free ports are a breeding ground for antiquities trafficking. Used as large, tax free warehouses for storing art, often with no source or ownership history, such free ports are used as key transit points between the origin of looted antiquities and their entrance into the global market without provenance. 
  • Coin Sales are a Key Element of the Antiquities Market: The scale of coin sales online has grown significantly in recent years and represents a large share of the market sales in both volume and revenue. As Wartenberg noted, the coin market is largely open access. Coin sales were not included in the figures included in the Rand Report title “Tracking and Disrupting the Illicit Antiquities Trade with Open Source Data” although they were discussed.
  • Market Analysis Should Extend to Sites On the ground and On the web: If research is done into the money made from individual on-the-ground archaeological sites as well as digital marketplaces like Etsy, eBay, or Facebook, efforts to find the exact value of the illicit art trade could be more constructive. The democratization of the market and a rise in e-commerce have led to a significant increase in online sales. The consequent flood of information on the market requires the use of advanced data analytics to assess the value of the trade. 
  • More Research Into Illicit Market is Needed: Brodie argued that general research into the market is lacking as a result of deficient funding and a limited pool of fields doing the research. Research should be composed of a variety of methodologies and should be multidisciplinary, including not just archeologists but other fields and sectors. Data analysis of online markets is key in approximating the scale of the trade, the actors involved and the dynamics of the market according to Hashemi.  
  • Data Analysis as the Basis of Policy: Shelley argued that unless we understand the dimensions of the market, the modes of sale, and the key facilitators, we cannot develop effective policies to address the problem of smuggled antiquities.

A full recording of the webinar, Putting a Price on the Priceless, is available here.

Learn more about the panelists’ research on antiquities trafficking and looting in the forthcoming Routledge edited volume Antiquities Smuggling in the Real and Virtual World (January 2022).

Two New Bilateral Agreements Will Shut the American Art Market to Illicit Antiquities from Albania and Nigeria

United States Partners with Albania and Nigeria to Combat Transnational Crime and Preserve Cultural Heritage

The Antiquities Coalition commends the United States, Albania, and Nigeria for strengthening their diplomatic ties as well as building law enforcement cooperation against the looting and trafficking of ancient art and artifacts.

Albania and United States Sign Bilateral Agreement

On August 23, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Matthew Lussenhop and Albanian’s Minister of Culture Elva Margariti signed a bilateral cultural property agreement, committing both countries to combating the illicit trade. 

This agreement closes U.S. borders to illegally acquired or exported Albanian antiquities. Moreover, it will open new opportunities for responsible cultural exchange between the two nations, such as traveling exhibitions and museum loans.

Albania is home to rich cultural heritage including Illyrian and Greek sites, Roman ruins, and Byzantine churches. The country, which is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, has two cultural World Heritage sites recognized as having “outstanding universal value.”  

By partnering with the United States, the world’s largest art market, Albania’s cultural heritage will enjoy stronger protections, while at the same time, American consumers will also be protected from unknowingly buying stolen property. The partnership will ideally cut down the global demand for illicit cultural items from Albania and return some already lost to their rightful home.

With this signing, the United States now has agreements with a growing number of countries in Europe including Italy (2001), Cyprus (2002), Greece (2011), and Bulgaria (2014)—demonstrating the region’s desire to work with international partners to fight cultural racketeering, while also sharing its rich heritage with the world.


A.A.S. Matthew Lussenhop and Albanian Minister of Culture Elva Margariti signing the agreement. Image via Oculus News.

Nigeria Announces that Bilateral Agreement is Forthcoming 

Also on August 23, Nigeria announced that the Federal Government and the United States have agreed to sign a bilateral agreement to counter antiquities trafficking and to protect Nigerian cultural heritage.

This was shared by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed after a closed-door meeting with the U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State on Education and Culture, Mr. Mathew Lussenhop.

The agreement will be signed in Nigeria soon.

The Antiquities Coalition Releases New Story Map on Cultural Heritage Law: Italy and the Vatican

New Story Map Commemorates the History of Cultural Patrimony Law on the Italic Peninsula

Throughout history, numerous powers have competed for control over the Italian peninsula, the epicenter of economic, political, and cultural exchange in the Mediterranean. Over the years, the region accrued a trove of priceless cultural treasures, ranging from the sprawling Roman Forum to the breathtaking Sistine Chapel and from the esteemed halls of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi to the winding canals of Venice. 

However, in the last several centuries, powers on the Italian Peninsula settled and Italy’s cultural property transitioned from objects of the present to cherished vessels of the Italian history and identity. Still, one question remained. 

Who was responsible for curating and protecting Italy’s wealth of art and artifacts?

This Story Map explores the succession of Italic powers, from the 8th century to the present, throughout which the Antiquities Coalition commemorates centuries of cultural heritage preservation in Italy. In it, we also celebrate repeated instances of compromise in times of conflict for the sake of historical preservation and detail the condition of Italian cultural patrimony laws today.

Show recent ministerial on culture held at the G20 Summit 2021.
G20 Cultural Ministers Meeting July 29-30, 2021. Image courtesy of the G20.

Italy’s dedication to cultural heritage preservation via strong legislation and collaborative problem-solving continues to this day. The Italian Carabinieri’s Art Squad is one of the world’s leading antiquities protection units globally. Moreover, Italy recently utilized its Presidency of the 2021 G20 Summit to finally add culture to the agenda, elevating issues of illicit art and antiquities trade to the global economic stage. To learn more about the G20’s 2021 Declaration on Culture, click here.

To explore the Full Story Map, click here.

Antiquities Coalition Discusses Due Diligence with Public Broadcasting of Latvia

There is a great deal at stake in conflict-destabilized regions—including cultural heritage, according to a web report (written in Latvian) published on June 1 by Public Broadcasting of Latvia (LSM).

Elizabete Auniņa, who researches international security and the Middle East, interviewed the Antiquities Coalition in her article about how conflict-destabilized regions are disproportionately vulnerable to looters, who strip artifacts from archaeological sites and museums, and smugglers, who sneak these pillaged goods out of their home countries and into the hands of the highest bidders. This trend has only been exacerbated by COVID-19, as the Antiquities Coalition reported in May 2020, August 2020, and March 2021.

For reasons like these, on May 6, INTERPOL launched ID-Art as a free application on the Apple and Android stores. Aside from allowing users to create an inventory of their private art collections and report at-risk geographical locations, ID-Art enables users to identify stolen cultural objects by either manually entering search criteria or simply taking or uploading a photo in the app, which then uses an image recognition program to compare the provided photo to the photos of 50,000-plus objects listed in INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art database.

In preparing several of our Story Map case studies, which trace looted objects from the ground to the buyer, we at the Antiquities Coalition have found that these objects end up not only in private collections, but also in auction houses and museums. More than likely, a good portion of these buyers are unaware that they are complicit in criminal activity—but, nonetheless, may bear some responsibility for failing to exercise due diligence (e.g., in-depth research).

“Even unsuspecting buyers can be complicit in buying looted artifacts, if not careful,” Antiquities Coalition Project Director Helena Arose told LSM, referencing the AC’s #BuyerBeware campaign.

The United States can help put a stop to these global crimes against culture by closing its own borders to illicit antiquities. For more information, visit our new webpage.

“A Revolutionary Tool”: The Antiquities Coalition Interviews Corrado Catesi about ID-Art App

Time and time again, the Antiquities Coalition has reported on antiquities that have been looted from historic sites, smuggled out of their home countries by organized crime groups, and sold to the highest bidders, with the profits being used to fund violent crime and conflict all over the world.

We’ve seen enough—and so has INTERPOL. In May 2021, INTERPOL expanded on its Stolen Works of Art Database by launching the ID-Art app, now available to the general public for free through major app stores. 

The Antiquities Coalition spoke with Corrado Catesi, coordinator of the INTERPOL’s Works of Art Unit, to learn about what this app can do—and why we need it now more than ever.