The 76th Session of UNGA: “Building resilience through hope—to recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainability, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people, and revitalize the United Nations”

As the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly has concluded, the Antiquities Coalition looks back at the UNGA’s leadership in the fight against cultural racketeering. 


Protecting Culture Under Threat

At the 70th Session held in 2015, a main topic of discussion for the attending heads of state was how to combat the growing strength of violent extremist groups in the Middle East. To that end, key experts and stakeholders from the cultural and security sectors came together under UN auspices to seek innovative solutions to halt the trafficking of “blood antiquities.” 

Soon after, the UN partnered with Interpol to launch a global initiative, titled ‘Protecting Cultural Heritage–An Imperative for Humanity’ to boost protection of cultural heritage targeted by terrorists and traffickers. Leaders from the Middle East, the UN Security Council, UNODC, UNESCO, and Interpol came together to inaugurate this task force under a shared mission, stated by Mireille Ballestrazzi, President of Interpol: “to combine our efforts and resources to efficiently curb this criminal phenomenon and protect the world’s cultural heritage for future generations.”

Simultaneously, the Antiquities Coalition built upon the momentum of the UNGA’s declarations. Through a solutions-oriented forum with the Foreign Ministers of Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Australia, as well as senior delegations from Cambodia, Italy, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand, the Antiquities Coalition brought together policymakers and leading experts to develop and implement targeted recommendations for halting this black trade. Our subsequent launch of the Culture Under Threat Task Force was met with overwhelming support and went on to publish a joint task force report that  put forward 31 specific recommendations to address the ongoing crisis of cultural racketeering.

At a 2016 General Assembly meeting, The United Nations Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, issued an urgent call to step up international action against the destruction of cultural heritage. The human rights expert told the UN General Assembly that the impacts of cultural heritage destruction is felt broadly, citing numerous examples of the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage having a grave impact on people. The Antiquities Coalition also released its recommendations for the US government through the Culture Under Threat Task Force, in collaboration with the Middle East Institute and Asia Society in April of 2016.

In 2017, UNIDROIT Secretary General José Angelo Estrella-Faria utilized the high level convening of featured speakers from Cyprus, the Council of Europe, INTERPOL, UNIDROIT, UNESCO, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to outline efforts to encourage UN member states to ratify the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention.

In 2018, The General Assembly adopted — without a vote — a draft resolution, “Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin” (document A/73/L.54). When introducing the draft resolution, the Greece representative affirmed, “The international community shares a common responsibility to protect cultural property.”

At the 2019 meeting,  President Donald J. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — joined by UN Secretary-General António Guterres —  highlighted threats to the world’s religions and launched an international campaign to fight back, pledging $25 million to safeguard religious freedom, sites, and relics.

Putting Culture Center Stage

The UNGA has helped turn a spotlight on the links between violent extremism and cultural racketeering, as well as on the important organizations and individuals working to combat looting.

Beginning in 2017, on the margins of the UNGA,  the Global Hope Coalition began hosting an annual awards ceremony in service of its mission of identifying heroes against violent extremism and amplifying their work. 

Also at the 2018 conference, speakers explicitly linked illicit trafficking and terrorism, warning that the past few decades were characterized by an increase in the illicit trafficking of such artifacts. If unchecked, subsequent conflict in the Middle East would lead to unprecedented destruction, looting and theft.  

In 2019, the Italian Carabinieri Department for Protection of Cultural Heritage was honored as a Global Hope Hero for combating the illicit trade of cultural property and protecting cultural heritage in conflict and disaster zones. 

Prioritizing Cultural Heritage Protection

The antiquities trade has seen the General Assembly increasingly prioritize the protection of cultural property in response to the prevalence of the issue of cultural racketeering at both national and international levels. Recognition and participation from high level state leaders emphasizes the importance of the work being done to combat looting and trafficking, and encourages stakeholders to delve more deeply into this fight. The Antiquities Coalition commends the United Nations General Assembly’s sustained commitment to combating the threats the illicit trade of blood antiquities poses to cultural heritage and vulnerable communities. 

AC Story Map Follows Court Decision on Claims of the Guennol Stargazer as its Case, Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc. et al, Reaches a Conclusive Judgement

Traversing the globe from its Anatolian origins in the 3rd millennium BCE to its current state in 21st century New York, the Guennol Stargazer has recently experienced a tumultuous legal history having found itself in the middle of a court case involving the Republic of Turkey and Christie’s, a world-renowned auction house. Purchased by Michael Steinhardt in 1993 and sold by Christie’s for nearly $13 million in 2017, the Stargazer was claimed to have been stolen from the Republic of Turkey in violation of the 1906 patrimony law, as asserted by the Consul General of the nation. Though the legal battle was scheduled to proceed to a bench trial on April 27, 2020, the trial was postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As of September 7, 2021, the court has reached a decision.

The Guennol Stargazer is one of just fifteen similar figures in existence. Though it had been on display and exhibited for decades, Turkey did not allege that it had been looted and smuggled from Turkey, nor file claims on the figure, until its high-profile sale at Christie’s in 2017. This case has garnered significant public attention, calling for a narrative explanation of its history. The Antiquities Coalition has released and updated a story map to signify the fate of the famed Guennol Stargazer.

This is not the first occasion of Michael Steinhardt having been involved in controversial art deals – even so, the ruling led to the return of the Stargazer to Steinhardt’s possession. Based on Judge Nathan’s most recent judgement, inconclusive evidence of the Stargazer’s history prior to the 20th century has resulted in the court siding with the defendant.

However, the recognition of a 1906 decree made under the Ottoman Empire in the public court system shows promise for future cases of legal claims on looted antiquities. The court significantly ruled that if Turkey could have proven the presence of the famed antiquity in 20th century Turkey, a ruling could have been made in the country’s favor. Cases with more conclusive evidence may thus succeed in their attempts to have antiquities returned to Turkey.

To learn more about the legal outcome of the claims on the Guennol Stargazer and the legal impacts of Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s, Inc., view the Antiquities Coalition’s full story map here.

Antiquities Coalition Re-releases Updated “Cultural Piracy: Mapping Antiquities Seizures Around the Globe”

Following the return of 17,000 looted antiquities to Iraq, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet has been repatriated as of September 23. 

WASHINGTON, DC (September 23, 2021) — Following a rise in internal conflict and the 2003 US incursion in Iraq, looting and trafficking of art and antiquities in Iraq skyrocketed. However, after nearly two decades of labor, the Antiquities Coalition celebrates the successful repatriation of nearly 17,000 artifacts to their rightful home. 

The Iraqi culture minister Hassan Nazim called the restitution “unprecedented” and “the largest return of antiquities to Iraq.” Among the artifacts, most of which are 4000 year old Sumerian objects, was a rare tablet in cuneiform script, inscribed with a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, here. The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet has officially been repatriated to Iraq as of today, September 23, marking an exceptional restitution that will allow for a deeper cultivation of connections between Iraq’s people and the nation’s history. 

The scale of theft and racketeering evidenced by this momentous repatriation is not an isolated incident. To give a sense of the extent of the global scale of the problem, as well as to commend the successful seizures of these stolen objects by authorities worldwide, the Antiquities Coalition has updated this comprehensive map: “Cultural Piracy: Mapping Antiquities Seizures Around the Globe”

Nearly $65 Million in Illicit Artifacts Seized Since 2014 From the Middle East and North Africa

The Antiquities Coalition has reviewed recent publicly available reports of art and antiquities seizures to update “Cultural Piracy: Mapping Antiquity Seizures Around the Globe.” This tool provides a geographic representation of the illicit antiquities trade stemming from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by plotting reported cultural property seizures since 2014. These news reports are from English, Arabic, and Turkish-language media sources. In total, the map plots 270 seizures and 230,357 individual objects.

Key Findings:

  • Total reported value of $63,934,933.
  • Actual value likely much higher given that just 10% of objects had reported values.
  • Highest valued seizure is $13 million worth of manuscripts and statues from Iraq.
  • The United States accounts for the majority of seizures, with France, Germany, and Spain following.

“The Antiquities Coalition hopes that this map will help underline the patterns in the illicit trade and further reinforce international collaborations to curb it,” says Deborah Lehr, Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition. “Clearly, there are locations in which commendable efforts are succeeding in thwarting this trade.” Nevertheless, there is an obvious need for intergovernmental cooperation: illicit trade is a cross-border issue that requires a multinational response.

To explore this interactive map, click here.


United States and Bahrain Strengthen Bilateral Ties to Fight Against the Illicit Trade in Cultural Property

Closed-Door Workshop Links International Experts to Discuss How Governments Can Work Together to Fight Cultural Racketeering 

The Antiquities Coalition, in close collaboration with the U.S. Department of State and the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, was honored to host a virtual closed-door workshop on strengthening international cooperation in the fight against the looting and trafficking of cultural property earlier this month. 

BACA Culture and Arts Director General Shaikha Hala bint Mohammed Al Khalifa opened the workshop, saying that the effort “…represents the start of a long-term endeavour to bolster global co-operation in preserving cultural heritage for various societies.”

This event was one part of a wider online forum to promote mutual understanding between the United States, still the heart of the global art and antiquities world, and Bahrain, which is quickly becoming one of its more important players.

The Middle East and North Africa, with its rich and diverse history, has much to lose from this cultural racketeering. Daesh has made front-page headlines for its pillage of the Cradle of Civilization, but the threat goes far beyond Iraq and Syria. International experts continue to warn that antiquities looting and trafficking is funding terrorist groups including Daesh in Libya, and Al Qaeda and the Houthi militias in Yemen. Moreover, this terrorist financing often goes hand-in-hand with money laundering and other financial crimes, to which the art market is also particularly vulnerable. Art market leaders, the banking industry, and governments have increasingly recognized the growing risks from this criminal activity, calling for strengthened best practices and legislation to fight back while better protecting legitimate collectors, museums, and market actors. 

The United States is in a unique position to make a difference, as it remains the world’s largest art market, making up 42% of the global total. However, with the creation of new and prominent museums, a booming art market, and a strong push for cultural tourism, the Gulf States are quickly becoming key players. In particular, with strong ministerial leadership from the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, Bahrain is now enjoying a prominent role in the art world, serving as the host of the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage. With its close global ties and effective regional diplomacy, the kingdom is well positioned to become a leader in the global fight against the illicit trafficking of art and artifacts.

The Antiquities Coalition commends the United States government and the Kingdom of Bahrain for their leadership in safeguarding our shared cultural heritage.