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AC Discusses Museums and Cultural Racketeering at ASOR’s Annual Meeting

November 21, 2023

In recent years, some of the world’s leading museums have been caught up in scandals, lawsuits, and even criminal prosecutions for acquiring, possessing, or even just displaying antiquities looted from their countries of origin to feed the black market in stolen art. Other cultural institutions, especially in Europe, have been thrust into the glaring spotlight for collections that were taken by colonial governments as spoils of war during conquests and occupations. 

These examples show that nearly half a century after the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in which the international community came together to fight cultural plunder and help “to make the necessary reparations,” much work remains to be done. It is crucial that everyone involved in museums—from their boards of directors, to their staff, to their donors—understand not only their legal and ethical obligations, but also the reputational risks facing institutions who have any association with disputed art.

On November 17, the AC’s Director of Programs Helena Arose joined a workshop event, “Giving it Back: Repatriation and the Ownership of Antiquity” as part of the 2023 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR) in Chicago. At the event, experts gathered to present specific examples of recent case studies, explore differing models justifying repatriation, and the examine current legal frameworks for repatriation.

In her presentation, Arose discussed the results of legal and public pressure on American museums, and how their status as trusted institutions may help them avoid accountability in the courts of law and public opinion. 

The American public is trusting museums to teach us about topics through objects. What does it say when we see examples of objects being acquired at best, no questions asked, and at worst with full knowledge of the illicit origin. When museums purchase or display a looted object, and mask that history (purposefully or not), they are betraying the public’s trust. When museums fail to listen to calls from the public to answer questions, make provenance information accessible, or repatriate an object, they are betraying the public’s trust.”

The Antiquities Coalition will continue to act as a resource as we find ways to strengthen international museum practices and global policies to fight the illicit antiquities trade.

Learn more about the ASOR Annual Meeting here.