Antiquities Coalition’s Tess Davis Highlights the Illicit Trade of Cambodian Antiquities in Politico

The Kingdom of Cambodia is home to a rich archaeological heritage, but decades of unrest left its ancient sites and antiquities vulnerable to looters and traffickers. One of the most infamous was British expatriate Douglas Latchford. Latchford’s network sourced countless masterpieces (including a Top Ten Most Wanted artifact) from then-wartorn Cambodia, smuggled them across the border, and then laundered them onto the global art market. He then hid his substantial proceeds using a complex network of shell companies and offshore accounts. To this day, the breadth of Latchford’s crimes are still being exposed, while repatriations of his loot have included some of the biggest stolen art recoveries since after the Second World War. 

But the scale of Latchford’s story—which has been extensively reported on in the New York Times, Washington Post, and beyond—has obscured other dealers and collectors of Cambodian art. 

A recent Politico article sought to even this coverage, by exploring István Zelnik, a former Hungarian diplomat with a passion for Asian antiquities. Zelnik ventured into the art market following his retirement from the diplomatic service and, according to Politico, used his connections to sell Cambodian and other Southeast Asian antiquities to private collectors.   

The AC’s Executive Director, Tess Davis, has long worked to expose Latchford’s dealings and draw more attention to the massive scale of the looting in Cambodia. Davis reaffirmed this in Politico, stating “there is no legal supply of ancient Khmer art, that’s like saying it’s legal to sell a gargoyle hacked off of Notre Dame.”

The Antiquities Coalition will continue to fight to safeguard heritage from cultural racketeering and work with our domestic and international partners to support repatriation efforts of stolen artifacts. 

Learn about Zelnik in Politico here and check out the AC’s Top Ten Most Wanted, including Cambodia’s missing Uma, the Consort of Shiva.

AC Gives Key Takeaways from the Art Market Report 2024

This month, Art Basel and UBS released their annual global art market analysis: The Art Market Report 2024. As in years past, the United States remained by far the largest art market in the world in 2023. As a result, U.S. law and policy that affects the American art market has a significant impact on the entire global industry.

In an article for LinkedIn, AC Executive Director Tess Davis and AC Director of Programs Helena Arose give their key takeaways from the report for policy makers and the wider public.

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

Antiquities Coalition Warns U.S. Art Market Is a “Sanctions Black Hole” in Financial Times Op-Ed

Art and antiquities have financed some of the last century’s worst actors, yet for too long, public policy has treated cultural racketeering as a white collar and victimless crime. Since its founding in 2014, the Antiquities Coalition has worked to correct this false narrative: The art market’s avoidance from what are now standard laws and regulations is allowing a thriving illicit trade, as well as money laundering and sanctions evasion by some of the United States’ top adversaries—including those behind the war in Ukraine.

On February 28, 2024, in an op-ed for the Financial Times, Chair and Founder Deborah Lehr warned that even as President Joe Biden continues to crack down on Russia, “the U.S. art market is a sanctions black hole.” Reports from the Senate and Treasury Department have extensively documented how “key allies of the Russian state,” Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, have utilized the art market to launder tens of millions of dollars in full evasion of the sanctions regime. The reports also emphasized the need for anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorist financing (CTF) protections in the American art market, the largest unregulated market in the world. 

As Lehr states in her op-ed, until these steps are taken, “there is a real likelihood that collectors, dealers, and auction houses in the US may unknowingly continue to help further crime, armed conflict and even terrorism through the apparently legal purchase of art. This is too high a price to pay, even for a masterpiece.” Lehr’s call has been further justified by recent developments in the case of Hezbollah-financier Nazem Ahmad, who was indicted in April 2023 for using art and luxury goods to bypass terrorism-related sanctions, enabling transactions of over $160 million in the U.S.

The art market’s exemption from legal oversight has made it vulnerable to a wide range of financial crimes, threatening not just national security and economic integrity, but the vast majority of legitimate collectors, dealers, auction houses, and museums. Unless and until the U.S. public and private sectors close these loopholes, they will leave the world’s largest economy wide open to oligarchs, money launderers, terrorists, drug smugglers, artifact traffickers, and the many other criminals proven to have exploited the art market’s weaknesses. The Antiquities Coalition has led a charge to fight back with its Financial Task Force, which brings together a diverse group of experts to support law and policymakers. 

Read Lehr’s full op-ed here

Read Lehr’s previous 2020 op-ed on the Rotenberg brothers in the Hill here.