AC Explores Connections Between Cultural Racketeering and Corruption at the World’s Largest Forum in the Fight Against Corruption

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Council on Foreign Relations Debriefs COP27, ASEAN, and G20 Summits

The illicit trade of art and antiquities is no longer a niche issue. Global leaders in government, law enforcement, museums, and more recognize that significant action must be taken to end cultural racketeering and safeguard our shared history for future generations.

In 2022, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Cambodia, and the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in Indonesia shined a light on this crime. These summits introduced and reinforced the threat of the illicit antiquities trade to a larger audience and presented solutions for mitigating the issue. Each initiative also introduced a declaration broadly mentioning plans to combat the illicit trade in art and artifacts and/or preserve and protect cultural heritage.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) held a Diplomacy Debrief on November 21, 2022, to dive deeper into takeaways from each of these events and some of the most pressing international issues.

Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition and Term Member of the CFR, had the opportunity to ask these experts about the role that cultural diplomacy—like that seen at this year’s COP270, G20, and ASEAN meetings—plays in wider foreign diplomacy.

Miles Kahler, Senior Fellow for Global Governance at CFR and a professor at the American University School of International Service, answered that antiquities have been part of illicit financial flows as a result of globalization, and this is a big issue facing museums and other cultural institutions around the world. Kahler also shared the role of the G20 is to signal to governments that cultural racketeering is an important issue on the international agenda.

Zoe Liu, Fellow for International Political Economy at CFR, spoke about China’s perspective on the illicit antiquities trade, as Chinese politicians and scholars have been interested in receiving stolen Chinese statues from the British Museum as the country builds major museums. Liu emphasized that cultural diplomacy is an important aspect of bilateral relations between the United States and China.

The CFR previously discussed the issue of cultural racketeering during an episode of its “Why It Matters” Podcast. Davis joined Dr. Amr Al Azm, Professor of History and Anthropology at Shawnee State University, and host Gabrielle Sierra to explore cultural heritage during war, antiquities looting and trafficking, terrorist financing, and more.

Read the full transcript of the event here.

Think Tank: What Role Should Cultural Heritage Professionals and Organizations Play in Monument Removal?

Latest Policy Brief Outlines Best Practices Based on Lessons Learned from Museum Deaccessioning

From the United States, to Senegal, to Ukraine, communities are increasingly reevaluating the legacy of public monuments, especially those erected during prior regimes. This is a complex process, requiring consideration and input from a wide range of stakeholders. However, in many cases, heritage organizations have not yet taken an organized role to support citizens and their governments in navigating these difficult waters. 

In the Antiquities Coalition’s newest policy brief, Kate Harrell and Damian Koropeckyj call on cultural heritage professionals to play an active part in this ongoing conversation, given the field’s wealth of knowledge regarding the care, conservation, documentation relocation, storage, and removal of cultural property. They also argue that should a community decide to remove a monument, this action should be considered a form of “community deaccessioning,” analogous to deaccessioning within the museum space, and thus guided by written policies and best practices. The authors provide a series of recommendations to support heritage professionals in developing such principles based on what has worked in the museum context.    

“Moving forward together as an international community of experts in heritage is particularly important in the face of issues as fraught as monumental removal” Harrell and Koropeckyj write. “The policy recommendations that follow should be considered a call for action for both heritage workers and their executive organizational bodies.”

This is the twelfth policy brief published by the Antiquities Coalition Tank, which works to bring high-quality, innovative, and results-oriented research to the world’s decision makers. The institution seeks to foster debate and discussion on the most pressing challenges facing cultural heritage today, whether the illicit antiquities trade, armed conflict, or climate change. It was honored in 2018 as one of the world’s “Best New Think Tanks” by the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Global Go To Think Tank Index.

For a summary and link to the policy brief, click here.