The Antiquities Coalition Applauds US Decision to Rejoin UNESCO

Return to the UN Cultural Organization Will Provide a Global Platform for American Leadership

On July 25, First Lady Jill Biden oversaw the raising of the American flag at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), marking Washington’s return to the institution after a five-year absence. 

The Trump Administration had officially withdrawn from UNESCO in 2017, completing a process that started in 2011 when the Obama Administration froze all its financial contributions. By rejoining UNESCO, the United States will again have a seat at the table with the organization’s 193 other Member States, providing an important platform for American leadership at a critical time. UNESCO is the foremost global organization working to combat threats to our world heritage—and the sole agency with a mandate to do so within the UN framework—including the looting and trafficking of art and antiquities and cultural destruction in armed conflict like those now ranging in Ukraine, Sudan, and beyond. 

“As a founding member, the United States has previously been instrumental in working with UNESCO to fight the illicit trade in cultural property, mobilizing the international community to ratify international treaties, push for action at the UN Security Council, and respond on the ground in times of crisis,” said Deborah Lehr, Founder and Chairman of the Antiquities Organization. “As an organization that shares this mission, we commend the Administration for its return. Our revamped relationship with UNESCO will benefit not just our shared heritage, but our country, by again giving us a voice on the world stage.”

The Antiquities Coalition has long urged Washington to engage and participate fully in UNESCO. This week’s return fulfills a key recommendation of the nonprofit organization’s 2016 #CultureUnderThreatTask Force. Its report noted that American absence had reduced the “United States’ ability to drive policy and impact the broader agenda of UNESCO,” and with it the world. 

The Antiquities Coalition congratulates the Administration for reaching such an important foreign policy goal. It also encourages US policymakers to use this opportunity to continue strengthening our great tradition of leadership on cultural issues. As UNESCO continues to tackle contemporary challenges, the United States can play a key role in finding solutions. 

AC’s Deborah Lehr Emphasizes that the Illicit Antiquities Trade is More Than Stolen History in Arab News

The illicit antiquities trade is not a victimless crime. It destroys cultures around the world, global economies, national security, and our shared history. The money gained from these looted antiquities also funds some of the most dangerous actors, furthering harm to vulnerable communities experiencing unrest.

To end cultural racketeering, museums, institutions, and governments must collaborate to fund stronger provenance research units and develop legal ramifications against these acts. Deborah Lehr, Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, emphasized these points in an interview with Arab News.

Lehr detailed how high-profile stories, such as the return of the coffin of Nedjemankh and charges against Jean-Luc Martinez, the former director of the Louvre, have helped to expand the global outlook on stolen antiquities. These cases brought attention to the illicit trade while exposing those in positions of power who turned a blind eye and willingly took part in these crimes.

Lehr also pointed to the Antiquities Coalition’s call for a whole-of-government approach that would help address the negative impacts cultural racketeering can have on national economies and security. This is one of many recommendations that the AC presented to the G20, along with international cooperation, that would help them face this issue more comprehensively.

The article features the Antiquities Coalition’s Ten Most Wanted Antiquities, which aims to find and repatriate some of the most significant looted, stolen, and missing artifacts with help from the public. Specifically, the piece highlights the Lion of Nimrud, looted from the Iraq National Museum, and the Alabaster Stone Inscription, looted from the Temple of Awwam.

Read the full article from Arab News here.

AC Co-Facilitates Training on Preserving and Protecting Heritage in Saudi Arabia

The United States is the world’s largest art market, making up 45% of the global total, placing the U.S. in a unique position to make a difference in the fight against cultural racketeering. However, global players like the Gulf States are quickly growing their roles with the creation of new and prominent museums, a booming art market, and increasing cultural tourism. In particular, the government of Saudi Arabia is well-positioned to become a leader in the global fight against the illicit trafficking of art and artifacts.

Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, co-facilitated a training that explored how to combat the illicit trade of cultural objects with the Heritage Commission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Partnering with the Institute of International Education (IIE), the Heritage Commission held the three-day event provided participants with greater knowledge of the issue and solutions against this challenge. The Heritage Commission gathered professionals from within the Commission, as well as the Diriyah Gate Development Company, the Royal Commission for Al-‘Ula, Museums Commission, Public Prosecution, Interpol, the Ministry of Interior, MOFA, and The Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority to participate. This training is one of a series of trainings aimed to build the technical capacity of the Heritage Commission staff, leading to the overall strengthening of the skillset and professional capabilities of KSA’s cultural sector workforce.

The partner program implementing this training, IIE, works to advance scholarship, build economies, and promote access to opportunities through international education. The organization has engaged more than 29,000 program participants in over 180 countries. 

The session was co-facilitated by Dr. Erin L. Thompson, Professor of Fraud, Forensics, Art Law and Crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York. Dr. Thompson is an expert in the intersection of art and crime, encompassing such topics as antiquities theft and trafficking, forgery, and the ethics of digital reproductions of cultural heritage. Her first book,

Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors (Yale, 2016) examines the history of acquisition of Greek and Roman antiquities by private individuals, and her second, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Public Monuments (Norton, 2022) delivers a historical, legal, and political analysis of protests and removal of monuments in the United States from its establishment to the present.

Abir Chorfa, National Director for the Antiquities Coalition projects in Algeria, also joined as a co-facilitator. In her work with the Antiquities Coalition, Ms. Chorfa has overseen the development and implementation of multiple solutions in service of safeguarding heritage and furthering international cooperation and diplomatic efforts.

Davis’ session focused on the impact of cultural diplomacy and international cooperation in mitigating the illicit trade. The training ended with the opportunity to create a roadmap to foster international cooperation, strengthen law and enforcement, engage the community to monitor and protect sites, and identify other key stakeholders to prevent antiquities trafficking in Saudi Arabia.

The Antiquities Coalition thanks the KSA Heritage Commission for hosting these insightful conversations and looks forward to engaging in future collaborations with Saudi Arabia to end cultural racketeering around the world.

Yazda and the Antiquities Coalition Announce the Release of A Groundbreaking Series of 45 Videos Preserving Yazidi Heritage and Culture

Duhok, July 13, 2023: Yazda, a community-led organization dedicated to aiding and empowering survivors of genocide in Iraq and around the world, announced the launch of a captivating video series that showcases the rich and vibrant Yazidi heritage. This comprehensive collection of 45 episodes, meticulously crafted by talented Yazidi filmmakers over the span of two years, is made possible by the generous financial support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The series aims to preserve the invaluable intangible cultural heritage of the Yazidi community, promoting global awareness and fostering intercultural connections.

To date, Yazda has already released an impressive selection of 10 videos, available for viewing on both their official website and YouTube channel. Moving forward, Yazda will continue to unveil two new episodes every Tuesday and Thursday until all 45 videos have been published, providing audiences with an immersive journey into Yazidi culture.

“Songs, stories, and dances are all integral parts of Yazidi culture. Capturing these practices on video gives the world a glimpse into these unique and intangible cultural practices. USAID is proud of our partnership with Yazda and the Antiquities Coalition to train Yazidis in the art of filmmaking, offering a means to memorialize their heritage and make it globally available.” said USAID Mission Director to Iraq, Elise Jensen

Reflecting on his childhood memories, Ismail Issa, Yazda’s Culture Preservation Project Manager, reminisced, “I can still vividly recall the evenings spent at my grandmother’s house, listening to her captivating stories. Although I struggle to remember all the details, preserving this precious folk treasure stands as an invaluable community service.”

Peter Herdrich, Co-founder of the Antiquities Coalition added: “This is a groundbreaking project, a unique database of videos that captures the Yazidi community’s heritage. The documentation of Yazidi culture allows us to digitally preserve it for future generations.”

To view the compelling video series and embark on a journey through the Cultural Heritage of Minority Communities in Iraq activity, visit Yazda’s official website at or explore their YouTube channel at

“Preserving the Cultural Heritage of Minority Communities in Iraq” activity stands as a collaborative endeavor between Yazda and the Antiquities Coalition, funded by a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).