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AC Executive Director Tess Davis and Other Experts Discuss How to Disrupt the Illicit Antiquities Trade in Panel for 24-Hour Conference on Global Organized Crime

November 11, 2020

The Antiquities Coalition may be championing the international campaign against the illicit trade in art and antiquities, but it is not alone in the fight, as one panel of experts recently proved.

“Disrupting the illicit antiquities trade in the real and virtual world,” a Zoom event hosted on November 10 as part of the 24-Hour Conference on Global Organized Crime, focused on a multifaceted endeavor against cultural rackeetering that has been orchestrated by George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC), Loughnane Associates, LLC, and the Antiquities Coalition.

The panel—moderated by TraCCC Founder and Director Louise Shelley, who is one of the world’s leading experts on transnational crime—began with a presentation by Antiquities Coalition Executive Director Tess Davis, who set the stage by explaining the financial and legal significance of cultural racketeering. This phenomenon made headlines earlier this year, when a U.S. Senate report revealed that two Russian oligarchs had used the U.S. art market to evade U.S. sanctions and launder millions of dollars. They were able to commit these crimes because the United States has historically failed to regulate its art market, a trade made particularly vulnerable to financial crimes due to its high value ($28.3 billion, according to most recent estimates), global reach, unique characteristics (e.g, portable, difficult to track, lack of consistent valuation, etc.), and culture of secrecy.

While dealers in similarly vulnerable markets, such as the gemstone market, are required by the Bank Secrecy Act to assist the U.S. government in detecting and preventing financial crimes, the art market is currently exempt from this law. This major loophole was one of the primary factors motivating the Antiquities Coalition to convene the Financial Crimes Task Force, a diverse group of experts that worked together on a groundbreaking September 24 report, which contained 44 recommendations that the U.S. government, the U.S. financial industry, the U.S. art and antiquities sector and the international community can implement to protect the U.S. art market from financial crimes.

Davis’s presentation provided the context viewers would need to understand the next presentation, provided by TraCCC Research and Data Analyst Layla Hashemi. A few years ago, Hashemi and other researchers took note of a surge of antiquities trafficking from Iraq and Syria. Knowing how extensive the sales opportunities created by the internet and social media can be—and how easily the proceeds of such sales can be used to finance terrorism—these researchers sought to investigate the mechanisms financing terrorism, identify effective methods and tools for online investigation of trafficking, and promote the responsible collection of cultural objects.

To this end, TraCCC researchers—supported with funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism—monitored the sales of coins and cuneiform objects from Iraq and Syria across online sales platforms (e.g., VCoins), auction sites (e.g., Sixbid, eBay), and darknet sources (e.g., Dream Market). They also tracked online trade networks across social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Etsy, etc.) using specialized tools (DuckDuckGo, Tor, ShadowDragon, etc.), even developing the Facebook Profile Intel Tool to automate the process of scraping Facebook profiles and mapping network connections.

Through their research, Hashemi and her colleagues made the following conclusions:

  • One cannot rely upon online images to determine whether an object is real or counterfeit, let alone where it came from.
  • Many objects are sold with “problematic provenance,” preventing us from knowing their true ownership history and date of excavation.
  • Antiquities may be advertised as toys, educational tools, jewelry-making components or “curiosities.”
  • Genuine and illegally traded antiquities are often mixed together in a phenomenon termed “piggybacking.”
  • Sellers and buyers in the online antiquities trade often obscure their identities through false accounts and alter egos, making it difficult for authorities to track transactions.
  • ISIS and other antiquities groups indeed made revenues from antiquities trafficking.
  • There is a very “dynamic” online trade, which features a democratization of the market and a flooding of the market with low-value items, some of which are counterfeits.
  • There was no evidence of illicit coin and cuneiform sales on the darknet, likely because the antiquities market is a “grey market,” a market in which licit and illicit goods are mixed, making them difficult to distinguish and easy to trade without needing to use the dark web.

Loughnane Associates, LLC President Michael Loughnane worked with TraCCC, as he explained in the panel’s third presentation, to “look at the financial backbones” driving criminal organizations in Iraq and Syria, then come up with effective means to build investigative processes to counter the actors involved in these networks.

Loughnane found that, in general, the illicit artifact trade process could be broken down into three parts—they were sourced in Iraq and Syria, transported through various regions (e.g., Turkey, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, etc.), and sold to buyers in the United States, the United Kingdom and parts of the European Union. While items may be acquired and transported smaller operations, criminal enterprises control the various points of transference—and, as such, the bigger picture.

There are a variety of structures that these criminal enterprises must build their financial networks within in order to be successful in their operations, such as national laws, expert guidelines, banking requirements, and due diligence practices—all of which act as potential counterpoints by which crimestoppers can impede the flow of profits. To counter suspect activity, though, the local, international, and political parties in charge of creating and enforcing these laws, guidelines, requirements and practices must be made aware of how to identify cultural racketeering as it occurs in the market. The key is the fact that all criminal enterprises engage in financial systems, communication, and the business process when getting illicit artifacts from source to sale. As such, efforts to destroy a criminal enterprise must center on destabilizing one or more of these key aspects.

The panelists spent the remainder of the panel answering questions from Shelley and the audience.

To view the full panel, click here.