As long as there have been tombs, there have been tomb raiders. For hundreds of years, civilizations have attempted to preserve their history from enemies seeking to plunder them, but today we’re seeing these crimes take place on an unprecedented scale. Globalization and technology are advancing at a much faster rate than our governments, law enforcement, and public policy can fight back.
These bad actors also have an increased opportunity to strike when regions are experiencing conflict. In Iraq and Syria, war has led to a surge of looting of archeological sites and the production of counterfeits as the illicit antiquities trade generates substantial revenue for conducting acts of violence on local and international scales.
On December 9, 2022, Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, and Helena Arose, Project Director of the Antiquities Coalition, were honored to speak during the International Anti-Corruption Conference to discuss the issue of looted antiquities and conflict financing. They joined the panel “Looted Antiquities and Conflict Financing” hosted by the Docket, an Initiative by the Clooney Foundation for Justice. In 2020, The Docket launched a multi-country investigation tracking the smuggling of antiquities from Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen into European markets and the United States. It released the results of this investigation in a report this summer.
Moderated by Shaunagh Connaire, Communications Director at the Clooney Foundation for Justice, the panel featured Davis and Arose alongside Antonia David, Legal Program Manager at the Docket, Layla Hashemi, Researcher and Data Analyst at the Terrorism Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, and Mike Loughnane, President of Loughnane Associates.
In many jurisdictions around the world, including the United States, the multi-billion dollar art market is not subject to anti-money laundering protections. Davis, Arose, and their fellow panelists emphasized that this comes back to the misconception that cultural racketeering is a white-collar, victimless crime. Policymakers are beginning to realize the urgency of tackling this illicit trade, but a lack of global policy has pushed the burden of action onto the art community.
“We have been expecting archaeologists, conservators, preservationists to combat trafficking, money laundering, tax evasion, sanctions evasion,” said Davis. “These are completely different languages.”
The panelists concluded the conversation with three key takeaways for attendees:
- International governments need to close loopholes in the art market regulation that allow for corruption, sanctions evasions, and financial crimes to effectively mitigate the illicit antiquities trade.
- Public institutions, including museums, need to be held accountable for their complacency and participation within the illicit trade. These institutions can play a vital role in advocating for legal practices in the global art market and influencing private collectors.
- Anti-corruption and transparency organizations have a role in the fight against cultural racketeering as this illicit trade not only compromises bad actors but ethical collectors and consumers.
The Antiquities Coalition thanks the IACC for hosting this important conversation and looks forward to collaborating with global anti-corruption experts to protect and preserve our shared history, human rights, national economies, and global security.