Labels on Looted Art: The AC Interviews Marc Masurovsky on New York Law

On August 10, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a law requiring art museums across the state to prominently identify art stolen by Nazis in placards placed alongside the works. The law covers pieces that experienced theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale, or other involuntary means during the Nazi era in Europe.

This action follows continued efforts by the state to return Nazi-looted work over the last several years and educate New Yorkers about the Holocaust and its impact.

We spoke with Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), to discuss the importance of this legislation, how it will impact Holocaust survivors, and whether we can expect other governments to develop similar laws for all types of stolen heritage.

Last Week Tonight Tackles Cultural Racketeering with Cameo from the Antiquities Coalition

The global issue of cultural racketeering is becoming increasingly well known among the general public as stories of looted antiquities continue to make national headlines. Some of the world’s most prestigious museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre Museum in Paris, have been caught up in a flurry of scandals for collecting and displaying stolen art within their walls.

Last Week Tonight host John Oliver tackled the issue during the show’s October 2 episode, detailing examples of museums and collectors participating in this illicit trade and why it continues to thrive today. He explores the history of the British Museum and emphasizes that most museums only display a tiny fraction of their full collections. In the case of the British Museum, they publicly display 80,000 of their 8 million objects, which accounts for just 1%.

Oliver also introduced provenance research and highlighted an example of Sotheby’s auction house ignoring warning signs of a looted Cambodian antiquity, featuring a cameo from Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition. 

Davis provided insights on the incident and Sotheby’s final decision to display the antiquity on the cover of one of its most popular publications: 

“Three years ago, Cambodia learned that Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan was attempting to sell a thousand-year-old masterpiece for $3 million, the feet of which were still at the temple in Cambodia,” said Davis. “Sotheby’s was warned by the very expert they hired to appraise the statue that it was ‘definitely stolen.’ They knew the feet were still there. Despite what their expert told them, they decided to put the statue on the front of one of their more prominent auction catalogs of the year.“

Oliver notes that it is not uncommon to see statues without hands or feet, and while many may assume it comes from damage over time, it is often a sign that the statue is stolen. A 2017 op-ed, authored by the Antiquities Coalition, was also quoted to emphasize that cultural racketeering is not a white-collar, victimless crime. The illicit trade of art and antiquities has funded some of the world’s worst actors, from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The episode wrapped up with a skit featuring comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who takes viewers through the Payback Museum, the first museum in the world dedicated to providing recourse to nations plundered of their greatest treasures throughout history. The skit showcases the looting of Western masterpieces such as Stonehenge and the Liberty Bell to drive home the disconnect other countries experience when significant pieces of history are missing and curators have no desire to return them to their rightful owners. Make sure to follow the Payback Museum on Twitter.

The Antiquities Coalition thanks John Oliver and the team at Last Week Tonight for using their platform to raise awareness of cultural racketeering and why we must combat looting. Watch the full segment here.


ASEAN Advances Regional Initiative to Combat the Illicit Trade in Cultural Property

Following High Level Convening with the Antiquities Coalition, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts of the Kingdom of Cambodia Announces Continued Action for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

Siem Reap, October 5—The Kingdom of Cambodia, with support from the Antiquities Coalition, has released an ambitious roadmap for tackling the illicit trade in cultural property across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Priorities include increased information sharing, strengthened cross-sectoral coordination, and a long-term strategy to address the root causes of the problem. These recommendations were developed during an emergency international conference, which was held from September 5-8 in Cambodia, this year’s ASEAN Chair. 

The Antiquities Coalition, a nongovernmental organization based in the United States, joined the Kingdom’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in recruiting high-level experts to share global best practices during the event. “The Prevention of the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Properties: An ASEAN Perspective” convened ASEAN Member States, key partner countries, law enforcement, museums, and private sector representatives in Siem Reap, gateway to the temples of Angkor. This four-day program included an international plenum open to the public and press, closed-door meetings of ASEAN Member States to strengthen collaboration at the working level, and expert panels and site visits to share lessons. 

“The theft and illicit trafficking of cultural property is an international criminal activity” and “major multilateral challenge that has to be addressed by all ASEAN countries,” said His Excellency Prak Sokhonn, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, who opened last month’s conference. “My government is committed to putting a stop to the trafficking of our antiquities and we will work together with like-minded ASEAN governments, international organizations, and private sector partners to bring this to an end. We need to commit and to continue our fight to protect the soul of our cultural heritage and prevent the priceless antiquities from being further plundered, looted, and spirited away from the country.”

As the 2022 ASEAN Chair, Cambodia is using its platform to unite the region in the fight against the looting and trafficking of cultural heritage—a transnational crime that is threatening Southeast Asia’s rich heritage, local communities, and national economies. In addition to the September conference and today’s roadmap, this includes other concrete steps in the lead up to the ASEAN Summit this November in Phnom Penh. 

“As Southeast Asia’s lead political and economic forum, ASEAN is in a unique position to make a difference,” said Deborah Lehr, Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition. “We are thus grateful to the Kingdom of Cambodia and its Chairmanship, the ASEAN Secretariat, and all Member States for demonstrating the political will to combat looting and trafficking from the top down. The creation of a regional working group, a multi-year action plan, and an annual convening on this subject will do much to channel ASEAN’s efforts in the months and years ahead.”

Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, who opened the conference alongside H.E. Minister of Culture Phoerung Sackona and H.E. Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn, stressed the need for countries outside of Southeast Asia to support this effort—especially those who provide the market demand for looted antiquities.

“As a non-governmental organization headquartered in Washington, DC, we are grateful to see the United States working so closely together with Cambodia, as well as so many other countries here today,” Davis said at this month’s event. “These partnerships demonstrate what great accomplishments can be achieved when governments, law enforcement, and leaders in the arts and culture join forces.”

This convening is a significant milestone for ASEAN. Its ten governments are home to 55 World Heritage Sites, as well as four regional legal instruments for the protection of cultural property. It also has a demonstrated track record of tackling similar transnational problems, for example, through the ASEAN Working Group on Illicit Trafficking in Wildlife and Timber. However, despite this important foundation, the region’s art and antiquities remain under threat from criminals, as demonstrated by a slew of recent law enforcement seizures, prosecutions, and repatriations of artifacts looted from the region. The Antiquities Coalition strongly endorses today’s recommendations and looks forward to how Cambodia and other ASEAN states will combat looting.

Read the roadmap here.

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