At Council on Foreign Relations Meeting on Sanctions Strategy, Antiquities Coalition Calls on U.S. Treasury to Close Art Market Loopholes

February 2024 marked two years since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, destroying lives, communities, and cultural heritage. During that time, we have also seen the exploitation of heritage and historical propaganda become one of the Kremlin’s most effective weapons for its information warfare program targeting the West, a scenario the AC’s Think Tank warned would happen, as well as the organized plunder of Ukraine’s art and antiquities by invading forces. While priceless to the Ukrainian people, these treasures have the potential to be a valuable commodity to the cash-strapped Russian state, and thus may greatly undermine the U.S.-led sanctions regime. The lack of regulation of the American art market is additionally providing another—now well documented—route for Russia to evade sanctions.

At a recent meeting held by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on February 23, 2024, the U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo spoke on challenges facing the U.S. sanctions strategy. Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition and Term Member of the CFR, had the opportunity to ask the Secretary about a sanctions black hole: the American art market.

“Russia is isolated from the global economy, but there remains an easy backdoor through the $30 billion American art market, which is arguably the largest unregulated market in the world, period. And the U.S. government has proven in great detail how art’s providing a lucrative, and unfortunately untraceable, funding source for blacklisted individuals and entities. We’re talking tens of millions to Putin’s top enablers, the Rotenberg brothers, but also 160 million (dollars) to Hezbollah,” Davis noted. She then asked what Treasury is doing to fight back against these risks.

Adeyemo disclosed how his colleagues at the Office of Foreign Asset Control are focused on the art market and pursuing both wealthy Russian oligarchs and those close to the Kremlin. He also shared details on how the Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs (REPO) Task Force, which was founded in March of 2022 and is made up of the G7 and other allies, is working to ensure the U.S. and allies can track assets, including art, that may be used to move money around the world. 

“Ultimately, the thing that we know is that wealthy Russians have spent decades learning to evade not only our sanctions, but Russian taxes, frankly. So they are very good at this. But what we—by setting up the task force—the Repo Task Force, it’s put us in a position where we’re able to share more information not only in the United States, not only with the U.K., but with a number of our allies and partners to be able to go after their ability to move wealth in ways like this,” he added.

The Antiquities Coalition thanks the CFR and U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo for facilitating this important conversation. While there is much more to be done, open collaboration and consideration of all markets will ensure maximum effectiveness of the U.S. sanctions strategy.

Watch the full session here and learn more about how the Antiquities Coalition is encouraging responsible art markets and trade practices.

AC’s Tess Davis Joins AIA to Discuss the Fight Against Cultural Racketeering

Cultural racketeering isn’t just a threat to our past. It’s a threat to our future, to human rights, national economies, and global security. It is also a threat to the legitimate art market, to good faith collectors, dealers, galleries, and museums, who themselves can also be victims of looters and traffickers. To fight back, governments, law enforcement, and citizens should join forces to hold criminals accountable and close loopholes that leave our collective history vulnerable to this illicit trade.

On February 25, Antiquities Coalition Executive Director, Tess Davis, joined the Archeological Institute of America to discuss “Blood Antiquities: Tomb Raiders, Art Smugglers And The Black Market In Cultural Treasures.” These conversations help raise awareness of the scale of the illicit antiquities market, an important step in incentivizing action from leaders and policymakers. 

The AIA, the world’s oldest and largest archaeological organization, is a valuable champion in the fight to increase public knowledge of the cultural racketeering crisis through efforts like International Archaeology Day, a Site Preservation Grant program, Archaeology Magazine, their lecture program, and more. The AC is a proud supporter of these efforts, and Davis has previously participated in the AIA Archaeology Hour as the Virtual Lecturer of the Month. These collaborations strengthen our joint efforts. 

The AC has long worked closely with the AIA. AC Chair and Founder Deborah Lehr served as an AIA General Trustee from 2013-19, while co-founder Peter Herdrich was a Board Member and later CEO of the organization. Executive Director, Tess Davis, also started her career there as a program assistant in 2001.

The AC thanks the AIA for their continued partnership and looks forward to future collaborative efforts to ensure cultural relics are kept out of the hands of bad actors.

Learn more about Davis’ recent lecture here.

AC’s Tess Davis and Helena Arose: Museum transparency and ethical conduct regarding stolen cultural property necessary in maintaining public trust

In an article for LinkedIn, AC Executive Director Tess Davis and AC Director of Programs Helena Arose consider the question: Is the Rubin Museum’s closure in 2024 connected to its past involvement with the illicit trade in antiquities? 

Despite the museum’s answer that it is not, Davis and Arose examine the institution’s track record of collecting and transparency, and conclude that “Whether directly related or not, this situation underscores the power of public perception in shaping the actions of cultural institutions in the United States. In any case, it serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the importance of transparency and ethical conduct in maintaining public trust.”

As institutions that serve the public, museums must begin to face the reality of reputational and financial risks associated with unlawful or unethical behavior. The AC is committed to holding all those involved in the illicit trade of antiquities accountable for their role in cultural racketeering.

Check out the article below or on LinkedIn, and follow Tess, Helena, and the AC on LinkedIn for more.