Historic State Visit Advances US-India Fight Against the Illicit Antiquities Trade

President Biden and Prime Minister Modi Commit to Cultural Property Agreement in Joint White House Statement

Last week’s state visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly highlighted the growing importance of cultural property protection, and specifically combating the illicit antiquities trade, to the India-U.S. bilateral relationship. 

During the four-day tour to Washington, D.C.—which included a high-profile welcome ceremony, state dinner, and congressional address—the Prime Minister and President Joe Biden pledged to strengthen their already close partnership on this issue. Their top priority is finalizing a Cultural Property Agreement (CPA), which would close American markets to looted, stolen, and illegally exported art and artifacts from India. This commitment was enshrined in the Joint Statement between both leaders, issued at the White House on June 22, alongside key defense, trade, and technology goals. 

As an organization dedicated to fighting the illicit trade in ancient art and artifacts, the Antiquities Coalition had a front row seat to this important announcement. Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, attended the White House Welcome Ceremony on June 22, as well as the State Luncheon held on June 23, where she represented the organization among a distinguished and global group of politicians, diplomats, and members of the private sector. 

In addition to the joint statement, PM Modi announced that the United States would return over 100 antiquities to India in his goodbye address:  “I am happy that the American government has decided to return more than 100 Indian antiquities that had been stolen from us. These antiquities may have gotten to the international market in different ways – some legal, some illegal. I express my gratitude to the American government for returning these items.”

The Antiquities Coalition welcomes these strong steps from global leaders, which signify that cultural heritage protection and lawful exchange is a priority for both governments. Moreover, the AC emphasizes that CPAs between the United States and foreign governments are important tools to combat cultural racketeering. Under U.S. and international law, the United States can join these agreements to prevent looted and stolen antiquities and artifacts from entering the American art market, fighting the illicit trade while allowing the legal trade to continue and even thrive. They also aim to lessen global demand for illicit objects—especially since the U.S. makes up some 45% of the global art market—while increasing responsible cultural exchange.  

Read the full statement here

Learn more about Cultural Property Agreements here.

South China Morning Post Highlights AC’s Tess Davis for Work Recovering Cambodian Antiquities

The Kingdom of Cambodia is home to a rich cultural heritage, but decades of past unrest left this history vulnerable to criminals and destruction. 

One of the most notable smugglers of Cambodia’s history was Douglas Latchford, who exploited the nation’s vulnerability during its long war with the Khmer Rouge. From the 1970s forward, Latchford looted countless masterpieces, using a complex network of shell companies and offshore accounts both to launder the artifacts themselves and his proceeds from them. Latchford died in 2020 fighting extradition from Thailand to the United States, where he was facing multiple felony charges for his role in plundering Cambodia’s past. 

However, thankfully Latchford’s death did not stop efforts to secure justice, a mission in which Cambodia, in partnership with Federal authorities from the United States, has had much success. In recent years, repatriations of Latchford loot have constituted some of the biggest stolen art recoveries since after the Second World War, as well as the largest ever forfeiture of criminal proceeds from the sale of illicit antiquities. 

The quest to take down Latchford was a long one. In a recent piece, the South China Morning Post highlighted the part played by Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition.

Davis, who some have dubbed “Indiana Jane” for her work preserving cultural heritage, worked on the Latchford case from the very beginning, alongside colleagues from Cambodia and around the world. To learn more about her efforts and story, read the full article here.

AC’s Deborah Lehr Highlights Need for International Efforts to Support Ukraine’s Heritage in The Hill

When countries experience conflict, one of the many tragedies includes the destruction of cultural heritage as a way to erase the nation’s identity. Today, art and antiquities remain frequent targets for looting during times of crisis.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has been no different, with Ukraine reporting nearly 1,700 instances of likely damage to museums, archives, and libraries as a result of the ongoing war. The treasures damaged by Russian forces are priceless pieces of Ukraine’s history and critical to telling their story.

On June 2, 2023, Deborah Lehr, Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, explored this issue during a panel at the Meridian International Center’s Culturefix, where the need for a collaborative effort to support Ukraine was a key focus. Moderated by Lehr, the panel included Dr. Kateryna Smagliy, First Secretary, Public and Cultural Diplomacy, Embassy of Ukraine to the U.S.; Dr. Richard Kurin, Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large at the Smithsonian Institution; and Irina Bokova, Former Director-General of UNESCO.

In a recent piece, The Hill highlighted the panel’s conversation on the vulnerabilities of cultural heritage in conflict zones and what steps international partners can take to protect our shared history.

Read the full article from The Hill here.

AC Leads Expert Discussion on Efforts Beyond Cultural Heritage Preservation

The illicit trade of cultural property continues to plague our collective history, with many governments, including the United States, warning that it also threatens our global security and economy. American calls for action have been echoed by a wide range of international partners—including groups like the United Nations Security Council, Group of 20, European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and ASEAN.

For too long, we’ve also seen bad actors misuse the art market to launder money, evade sanctions, and hide their illicit antiquities with only the cultural sector actively working to combat them.

On June 5, 2023, the Antiquities Coalition held a roundtable with experts from various backgrounds to discuss how governments, law, civil society, and more can support the culture sector in combating cultural racketeering.

These recommendations focused on actions beyond heritage preservation and emphasized that mitigating the illicit antiquities trade is a shared responsibility. Better archaeology can not solve this problem alone, we need to strengthen law enforcement, international cooperation, and economic integrity. The illicit trade of art and antiquities should not be the burden of the cultural sector alone.

During the roundtable, participants discussed how the fight against cultural racketeering is linked with the broader goals of the United States, including combating transnational crime, protecting legal markets, and building stronger relationships with their allies. They also emphasized how these actions benefit all sectors of society.

The Antiquities Coalition thanks those who participated in the roundtable and looks forward to collaborating with experts across all industries to strengthen legal frameworks and preserve and protect cultural heritage.

AC and the Syriac Heritage Museum Launch New Website to Preserve Heritage

Digitization is critical to protecting and preserving our shared history. Technology is making it easier than ever for communities to document their rich heritage and make it easily accessible worldwide.

On May 9 at a ceremony held in Erbil, Iraq, the Antiquities Coalition (AC) and its partners at the Syriac Heritage Museum were proud to announce the launch of a new website. The website is one result of a two-year digitization and documentation project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

At the heart of the SHM website is the digital database of the Museum’s collection, an exhibition created by the project’s digitization team in Erbil. The website is one of the few in the world that can be viewed in the four languages of Kurdish, Arabic, English, and Suret. It documents the cultural and artistic heritage of Chaldean–Syriac–Assyrian people for researchers, scholars, and the public to view online, and it will help to archive the museum’s collection and attract new visitors.

The event was attended by government officials and members of the community, including Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul Najeeb Michael and U.S. Deputy Consul General Zehra Bell, who both spoke on the importance of this new resource. 

The AC works on projects across the Middle East and North Africa, and recently hosted a free, online Arabic-language training on digitization, documentation, and preservation strategies for museums that attracted over 1,400 registrants.

As technology continues to play a significant role in maintaining and sharing cultural heritage, the AC looks forward to partnering with like-minded organizations, government agencies, and more to safeguard our shared history.

Explore the website here.

Preserving Algerian Cultural Heritage: Bardo Museum Launches Digitization Lab

Antiquities Coalition Leads International Team in Building Digital Infrastructure

An international team of experts from Algeria, Egypt, and the United States have introduced a new digitization lab at the Bardo Museum, a first in Algeria. Led by the US-based Antiquities Coalition (AC), the project designed and installed a laboratory to digitize and document the Bardo’s museum collection and to build a database that will be accessible to the public via the Internet.

The AC brought together the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation, which led the training for and installation of the lab; the Bardo and five additional Algerian museums; the Algerian Ministry of Culture and the Arts; and the US Embassy in Algiers, which provided funding for the project. US Ambassador Elizabeth Moore Aubin cut the ribbon on the new lab in the Bardo’s facility in their 18th century palace. 

“This was truly an international effort,” Ambassador Aubin explained. “Supporting cultural heritage in Algeria is a top priority of the United States and one that we are proud to work on with such a diverse group of experts.”

Mme. Soraya Mouloudji, Algeria’s Minister of Culture and Arts, commented, “The preservation of culture is especially important in Algeria. We have a very long human history and outstanding collections that we want to share. We are pleased to work with our international partners to reveal so much about Algeria’s past.” 

In addition to the Bardo museum, representatives from five other Algerian museums joined the training.

“This is a major step forward for Algerian museums,” explained project director and AC Co-founder Peter Herdrich. “We scaled up the project to include these five other museums that will be able to build their own digital infrastructure. We have been working with the Ministry of Culture and Arts on heritage projects for the last two years and this is a great example of working as a coalition on a larger project supporting Algerian heritage.”

“We designed a curriculum specifically for these trainees,” training director Abdelhamid Salah of the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Fund said. “When you work with excellent partners, it inspires you to do your best. And that’s what happened here.” 

The Bardo Museum specializes in Algerian prehistory, tracing back more than two million years to the dawn of man. 

Museum director, Zoheir Harichane, said, “Algeria is a spot where human culture originated. We want our collections to be visible on the Internet, to share our magnificent objects with the Algerian and worldwide publics. This allows us to do that and make Algeria’s culture part of the worldwide understanding of human history and how it developed.”

For more information, contact Ms. Abir Chorfa at achorfa@theantiquitescoalition.org. For more information about collaboration on advanced training projects in museum, library, archive, and manuscript skills and infrastructure and other cultural heritage preservation projects, contact Peter Herdrich at pherdrich@theantiquitiescoalition.org.