Cultural racketeering is a critical threat to our shared past, but the international community must also take urgent action against another rising danger: Climate change is devastating not only communities across the world, but also their cultural heritage, and risks wiping away this irreplaceable history for future generations.
In certain instances, climate change leads to the looting of artifacts. Some of Mongolia’s nomadic herders were forced to turn to alternative sources of income once the environment was no longer suited for grazing and they suffered a loss of income. The country has been a victim of cultural racketeering for decades and has implemented laws to protect and preserve its heritage, but these alone can’t stop climate change from intervening.
Deborah Lehr, Chair and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, joined international experts in climate, government, and more for the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, to discuss global efforts to confront the climate crisis and how cultural heritage professionals play a role.
As part of the Climate Heritage Network, the Antiquities Coalition recognizes that climate change is a top global threat to all aspects of our world. Lehr was honored to engage with other members in sessions about cultural heritage-based climate solutions and cultural extinction. These sessions featured Ministers of Culture from Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates alongside other government officials, highlighting the critical role policymakers play in establishing climate-conscious standards.
During Solutions Day at COP27, the Climate Heritage Network presented the “The Sharm El-Sheikh Declaration on Culture-based Climate Action.” The statement was endorsed by all participants of the Ministerial session and seeks to enhance culture-based solutions to climate awareness. It builds on commitments made in the Paris Agreement, the Rome Declaration adopted at the 2021 G20 Summit, and the Naples Declaration from this year’s Conference of the Ministers of Culture of the Mediterranean.
The declaration follows the Climate Heritage Network’s “Climate Heritage Manifesto,” inviting civil society, cultural organizations, and other stakeholders to signal our joint ambition to fight the climate crisis.
The Antiquities Coalition is a proud signatory of the Manifesto and commends the Climate Heritage Network for its efforts to raise awareness of the connection between cultural protection and preservation and climate change and looks forward to participating in future conversations about the issue.
Ministers Responsible for Culture and Art Build Further on ASEAN’s Commitment to Combat the Illicit Trade in Cultural Property
On November 28, the ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Culture and Arts released a Ministerial Statement on Cultural Property Protection, following their meeting which took place on October 27, 2022.
The strong statement recognized that the illicit trade is a serious transnational crime threatening Southeast Asia’s rich heritage and harming local communities. It also noted that safeguarding cultural heritage and building a responsible market are goals pursuant to ASEAN’s broader goals of maintaining and enhancing peace, security, and stability, and committed to collaboration through twelve specific initiatives, including:
ADVANCE a long-term, regional strategy that addresses the root causes of the illicit trade in cultural property;
ENCOURAGE all Member States to consider expanding the possibility to ratify or implement the relevant regional and international agreements related to the protection of cultural property against looting, illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership, while exploring how to best fill the gaps in this legal and regulatory framework in accordance with their respective national laws and regulations;
EXPLORE the possibility of forming an ASEAN working group/cross-sectoral initiative to coordinate a regional response, with the goal of developing a sustainable, multi-year action plan that tackles the illicit trade from all angles;
This statement builds on a roadmap released following an international conference held in September, “The Prevention of the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Properties: An ASEAN Perspective.” The conference, organized by the Royal Government of Cambodia in collaboration with the Antiquities Coalition 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.
Described as the “crossroads of cultures,” Afghanistan is home to a wealth of cultural heritage hailing from the Near East, Central Asia, South Asia, and more. Like many other nations, the country has also suffered consequences to its history as a result of global conflicts.
Decades of war from the ongoing Soviet invasion devastated the National Museum of Afghanistan, the most important repository of heritage in the country. Research estimates 70% of the objects from the museum were looted and 90% of registration records were destroyed.
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is committed to preserving and protecting the cultural heritage in Afghanistan. Their work is supported by major grants from the US Department of State through the American Embassy in Kabul and aims to rebuild the National Museum, develop a geospatial database of all detectable archaeological sites, support infrastructure projects, and raise awareness for the National Museum among high school students in Afghanistan.
Alejandro Gallego López, OI’s Program Field Director in Afghanistan, collaborates with other heritage experts to carry out these projects and to protect precious, culturally significant artifacts from destruction or theft.
Additionally, López along with Dr. Gil Stein and M. Fahim Rahimi published “A History of Afghanistan in 100 Objects” which details some of Afghanistan’s most culturally significant artifacts from prominent historical time periods. The book is free to download or read online.
The Antiquities Coalition interviewed López about his recent publication and work with the OI.
The Archaeological Institute of America is the oldest and largest organization in North America focused on archaeology, and the Antiquities Coalition has been proud to partner with the AIA since our founding. The AC’s Chair Deborah Lehr, an AIA General Trustee from 2013-2019, joined by Peter Herdrich, who served as an AIA Board Member and later CEO, created the Antiquities Coalition to fight back against cultural racketeering.
This November, Executive Director Tess Davis, who started her career at the AIA, was featured as the Virtual Lecturer of the Month. She presented two talks: Blood Antiquities: Tomb Raiders, Art Smugglers, and the Black Market in Cultural Treasures and The Wild, Wild East: Combating the Black Market in Ancient Asian Art.
Davis stressed the important role of archaeologists in raising awareness that antiquities trafficking is not a harmless crime. If you are a member of the AIA or an archaeologist interested in joining the fight to combat looting:
Raise awareness about illicit trafficking and its harms to your community, students, and colleagues.
Demand accountability from leading institutions when they exhibit stolen antiquities.
During AIA letter writing campaigns, share your experience to help the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) with deliberations that will help safeguard archaeological sites and objects.
And, follow the Antiquities Coalition on social media for the latest news, free resources, and calls to action.
World Leaders Address Cultural Racketeering in 2022 Bali Declaration, Building on Progress Made During the 2021 Rome Summit
From November 15-16, heads of the world’s largest economies gathered for the 2022 G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia. At the conclusion of the summit, the G20 leaders adopted the Bali Declaration, a culmination of the work undertaken by the Indonesian G20 Presidency over the course of the last year, which reaffirms the G20’s commitment to cultural heritage protection:
We reaffirm the role of culture as an enabler and driver for sustainable development with intrinsic value beyond its social and economic benefits. We are committed to develop policies that draw on cultural diversity as a resource for sustainable living and promote an inclusive and equitable ecosystem at all levels that values the contribution of those working in the culture, arts and heritage sectors. We will respect, protect and preserve the cultural heritage of our peoples, including local communities and indigenous peoples, as applicable. We support public incentives and sustainable investments from the private sector to strengthen the cultural economy. We will safeguard cultural heritage as well as fighting illicit trafficking of cultural property and promoting restitution to its rightful owner/countries of origin, in accordance with the relevant UNESCO Conventions and national laws.
This powerful statement aligns with last year’s Rome Declaration and the broader efforts of the Italian presidency, under which the G20 prioritized making culture part of the post-COVID recovery, as well as incorporating it into the institution’s broader work to secure economic integrity and transparent markets. This resulted in a Cultural Ministerial, held at the Colosseum in Rome during the summer of 2021, the culmination of a series of high-level events on the illicit trade that led up to the G20 Summit. The Indonesian presidency continued to build on this important groundwork, holding a G20 Cultural Ministers’ Meeting in Borobudur from September 12-13.
The statement in this year’s leaders declaration also addresses the first recommendation from the AC’s Roadmap for the G20 to Combat the Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects. The report, co-authored with international experts, called for the G20 to Build Political Will through a statement annually in the final declaration. With two years of strong statements in the Leaders’ Declarations, the G20 has demonstrated the political will needed to combat looting and trafficking from the top down.
The AC commends the G20 for making this issue part of its agenda and continuing to make cultural heritage an international priority. With the announcement of the prominent theme of India’s G20 Presidency, “Soul of India,” and given India’s role as a cultural leader in South Asia and beyond, the AC looks forward to what the Indian government will do to continue this critical focus.
Leaders’ Statement Follows Joint Initiative Between the Antiquities Coalition and Cambodia
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have released their 2022 Vision Statement as part of the organization’s 40th and 41st Summits, held from November 10-13 in the Kingdom of Cambodia, this year’s Chair. This declaration has included an unprecedented pledge by all ten Member States to combat the illicit trade in art and artifacts, a transnational crime that is threatening the region’s rich heritage, local communities, and national economies. Specifically, as part of a broader commitment to promoting global cooperation and peace, it urges ASEAN governments to:
ENHANCE the contribution of culture and the arts to promoting sustainable development through support for cultural and creative industries, as well as cultural property protection and preservation against cultural losses due to illicit trade and trafficking, climate change, and human-induced and natural disasters.
This vision statement reinforces Cambodia’s Chairman’s Statement from the Summit, as well as recommendations developed during a high-level international conference held from September 5-8 in partnership with the Antiquities Coalition and ASEAN. In addition to the organization’s Member States, “The Prevention of the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Properties: An ASEAN Perspective” also brought together international law enforcement, museum leaders, and private sector representatives in Cambodia to develop priorities for the region. Published on October 5, the event’s ambitious roadmap urges ASEAN to take concrete action against cultural racketeering, including the creation of a regional working group, a multi-year action plan, and an annual convening on the subject.
Cambodia and the United States, where the Antiquities Coalition is based, have worked effectively together for decades to preserve and protect cultural heritage. Over the last ten years, U.S. authorities have partnered with their Cambodian counterparts on a number of criminal investigations and prosecutions, resulting in tens of millions of dollars worth of repatriations to the kingdom. These include one of the world’s “Ten Most Wanted Antiquities,” a monumental sandstone sculpture of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, which was returned to Cambodia in August along with 29 other masterpieces.
During the separate U.S.-ASEAN Summit, also held in Cambodia on November 12, Prime Minister Hun Sen thanked President Biden directly for this work and called the United States the world’s “number one” country for recovering and returning stolen art to Cambodia. The U.S. and ASEAN further cemented their strategic partnership with a joint statement that also showcases a shared commitment to cultural preservation, by agreeing to:
BUILD people-to-people connectivity within the region and beyond by […] promoting and protecting cultural heritage.
President Biden and Prime Minister Hun Sen at the ASEAN Summit. Credit: Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister on Facebook.
“The Antiquities Coalition commends the Royal Government of Cambodia, ASEAN, and all its other Member States for putting the fight against cultural racketeering so high on this year’s Summit agenda and committing to future action,” said Deborah Lehr, Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition. “We are excited to see how the Republic of Indonesia, the 2023 ASEAN Chair, picks up this mantle and further showcases the rich cultural heritage of Southeast Asia to the world.”
AC Commemorates UNESCO Observance with Top 5 Achievements in 2022
Every year, significant milestones are made in the fight against cultural racketeering. From international agreements to repatriations, the Antiquities Coalition celebrates these achievements and looks forward to taking part in future actions to fight the illicit trade of art and artifacts.
Today, the Antiquities Coalition is joining UNESCO and other experts to commemorate the International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property. This observance reminds the world that theft, looting, and illicit trafficking of cultural property takes place in every country, robbing people of their culture, identity, and history — and, that we have to work together to combat this crime.
In honor of this annual observance, take a look at five moments from 2022 that impacted the fight to combat looting.
AC Joins International Leaders to Stand Against Looting
International cooperation is critical in the fight against cultural racketeering as it allows nations to come together and develop proactive policies to keep looted objects from passing through borders and onto the global art market.
🇰🇭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. With support from the Antiquities Coalition, Cambodia has released an ambitious roadmap for tackling the illicit trade in cultural property across 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 Siem Reap. The Antiquities Coalition joined the Kingdom’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in recruiting high-level experts to share global best practices during the event.
🏛️On National Museum Day, the Antiquities Coalition joined the China-Europe-America Global Initiative in organizing “The Second Dialogue: Protection of Our Cultural Heritage,” speaking alongside 31 experts from 10 countries. The global dialogue featured international leaders in government, the arts, business, and more in discussions about how we can work together to better safeguard our history.
📃The Antiquities Coalition joined the first cultural ministerial of the EU-Southern partnership alongside European governments, intergovernmental, and non-governmental organizations in Italy to explore how Mediterranean leaders can prioritize the protection of cultural heritage. The Conference of the Ministers of Culture of the Mediterranean ended with the signing of the Naples Declaration, which seeks to protect cultural heritage from disasters and other crisis scenarios while highlighting how culture drives and enables sustainable development. The Antiquities Coalition was honored to be one of the few non-governmental delegations, and the only one from the United States, to sign the communique and speak at the broader event.
“Ten Most Wanted Antiquities Campaign” Celebrates Its First Success
A decade-long and ongoing investigation into Douglas Latchford’s network by Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York uncovered thirty looted Cambodian artifacts in the collection of Netscape founder James H. Clark.
In August, the U.S. government repatriated the cultural treasures to the Kingdom of Cambodia, including a monumental sandstone sculpture of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god. The Ganesha marks the first success of the “Ten Most Wanted Antiquities,” our 2020 awareness campaign to locate and recover some of the world’s most significant looted, stolen, and missing artifacts.
Clark explained why he voluntarily gave up the pieces after learning they were stolen, saying, “my doing this might inspire other people to do the same, but I’m not sure—it’s hard for people to give up something they paid for, but for me, why would you want to own something that was stolen?”
To honor Cambodia’s continued efforts to recover its stolen heritage, the Antiquities Coalition is introducing Uma, the consort of Shiva, as the newest item on the list. Uma was looted from Khmer-Rouge territory and then laundered onto the global art market by Latchford.
Seeking Accountability for Museums with Looted Objects
Some of the world’s most prestigious museums are entangled with bad actors in the global art market, and more members of the public are increasingly calling on museums to identify and return looted objects in their walls.
In June, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg seized 5 Egyptian treasures worth over $3 million from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of a police probe that first made headlines in 2019. The probe exposed an international trafficking ring operating out of Egypt and war zones such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
“If our foremost museums, with entire departments of lawyers and scholars on staff, cannot ensure their collections are not the products of crime and conflict, then there is a clear and urgent need for stronger legal protections in the art market,” said Deborah Lehr, Founder and Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition.
Museums have a unique opportunity and responsibility to set the legal and ethical standards for all who operate within the wider market. Once known as the gold standard for due diligence and transparency, these museums must take steps to regain public trust.
A New Heritage Platform to Combat Looting in Algeria
Collaboration between governments, law enforcement, cultural experts, libraries, conservators, businesspeople, and more is necessary to develop solutions to safeguard cultural heritage across the world.
The ongoing partnership between the Antiquities Coalition and the Algerian Ministry of Culture, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Algiers, is working to preserve and protect the region’s heritage with new tools and digitization solutions. In May, the partnership announced the launch of Turathi, a photographic guide to help identify Algeria’s stolen cultural heritage.
The photo guide and accompanying database are a work tool intended primarily for local customs officers, law enforcement, and international partners involved in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property. However, the guide is available to everyone interested in protecting Algeria’s cultural heritage.
Major News Outlets Amplify the Global Issue of Cultural Racketeering
Following a flurry of headlines from the October 2021 Pandora Papers expose, major news outlets continued to feature the illicit antiquities trade in 2022.
Deborah Lehr, Chair and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, was quoted in a number of news articles throughout the year, placing the Antiquities Coalition at the forefront of organizations working to end the illicit antiquities trade. Lehr’s op-ed for Artnet details how the U.S. art market can ensure Russia does not evade sanctions to finance the Ukraine invasion. Smithsonian Magazine, The National News, and Euronews also featured Lehr’s experienced point of view when detailing various examples of this illegal market.
Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, was quoted in the New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek on the subject and even made a cameo alongside John Oliver. The Last Week Tonight segment detailed examples of museums and collectors participating in this illicit trade and why it continues to thrive today.
Oliver shared examples of illicit antiquities at the British Museum before diving into provenance research. Davis provided insights on one incident where Sotheby’s auction house ignored warning signs of a looted Cambodian antiquity and put the statue on the front of one of their more prominent auction catalogs of the year. The segment has garnered millions of views on YouTube, helping to raise awareness of cultural racketeering and why we must combat looting.
The Antiquities Coalition thanks its partners, governments, law enforcement, the public, and more for their critical role in the fight against the illicit trade of antiquities. Learn more about the International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property on UNESCO’s website.
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