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AC Executive Director Tess Davis Discusses How to Defend Sacred Objects and People of Faith from Cultural Racketeering in Panel Event

July 17, 2020

Why should the illicit trade in art and antiquities concern people of faith? How can we protect people of faith and all that they hold sacred from the effects of cultural racketeering?

The Antiquities Coalition weighed in on these questions on July 17, with AC Executive Director Tess Davis joining other experts concerned with religious and cultural heritage for a virtual dialogue, titled “Religious Cooperation and Cultural Heritage Sustainability.”

The event was co-organized by The Fletcher Initiative on Religion, Law, and Diplomacy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Foreign Affairs Institute (FAINST) based in Athens, Greece as part of their discussion program, “Cultural Heritage in Crisis: A Conversation Series.”

“Framed within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conversation series brings together cultural heritage experts, policymakers, practitioners, and influencers, to share knowledge, experiences, and recommendations about sustainable cultural heritage practices at a moment of great risk and a time of renewed possibility,” the Fletcher Initiative on Religion, Law, and Diplomacy described on the program’s web page.

This particular panel, moderated by Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou of the The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, also featured Mazen Karam, CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, and His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis) of America, Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Key takeaways included:

    • Sacred Objects Are Being Looted, Smuggled, and Sold for a Profit: Religious peoples are being deprived of objects held as sacred in their faiths by cultural racketeering, the illicit trade in art and antiquities. In putting a price tag on these artifacts, cultural racketeers are effectively advertising the sanctity of these holy relics as a commodity—an act that many people of faith would consider blasphemous. “One need only flip through the pages of an auction catalog or even scroll through a site such as eBay to see that sales are full of sacred objects, which were never meant to be bought and sold—and yet, nonetheless, are being hawked to the highest bidder,” Davis said.
    • Terrorist Organizations Use Cultural Racketeering to Fund Attacks on People of Faith: Newspaper headlines and court filings are full of examples where illicit antiquities have been traced back to organized crime operations, such as mafia syndicates, armed insurgents, and even terrorist organizations, like Daesh. Davis referred to antiquities excavated in regions of conflict and sold on the black market by groups of this ilk as “blood antiquities,” as Daesh and other terrorist organizations have historically used profits gleaned from cultural racketeering to fund their violent crimes—including, as Davis pointed out, destruction of sites with religious significance and even bloody attacks on people of faith. “Once you destroy all that people hold sacred, the next step is—without fail—to destroy the people themselves,” Davis said. “So you erase not only your enemies, but all evidence of them.”
    • Closing Borders to Undocumented Antiquities Stifles Cultural Racketeering and the Terrorist Activity It Funds: To protect people of faith and all that they hold sacred from cultural racketeers, we must deprive criminal and terrorist groups of their sources of funding, including the illicit trade in art and antiquities. The Antiquities Coalition “strongly advocates that countries around the world—and especially those market nations—work to cut off cultural heritage as a source of financing for these groups,” Davis said. “The illicit trade is a demand-driven trade, and no illicit trade has ever been defeated at its source, no matter what we’re talking about—it requires stifling that demand. And, in the case of art and antiquities, a handful of countries control that demand.” The Antiquities Coalition asserts that these countries are responsible for closing their borders to undocumented antiquities, particularly from countries in crisis. “With regards to the illicit trade in art and antiquities, as with all types of illicit trade, borders are really our best defense,” Davis said.
    • Bilateral Agreements Are the United States’s Best Mechanism for Keeping Out Undocumented Artifacts: With a historically unregulated, $28.3 billion art market, the United States is at the forefront of these demand-controlling countries. However, the United States can close its borders to undocumented antiquities by signing cultural memoranda of understanding (MOUs). While these bilateral agreements between the United States and other countries do not apply retroactively to objects already in the United States or create “ownership rights,” Davis said, they effectively restrict any further U.S. importation of stolen, looted or undocumented cultural property from at-risk countries. This not only allows the trade in documented cultural objects to continue, but also opens the doors for greater dialogue and exchange. 
    • Other Countries Also Have Tools to Stamp Out Cultural Racketeering: While bilateral agreements are ideal, efforts made by the United States—and other countries—do not have to stop there. “Since cultural heritage provides such an important foundation for national reconciliation, for economic recovery … its protection really needs to be explicitly incorporated into peacekeeping mandates and training, as well as post-conflict planning and recovery trust funds,” Davis said. “Another thing that we think is very important is that crimes against culture should be criminally prosecuted along with other atrocity crimes, either through international tribunals or through domestic prosecutions … these crimes against culture, they’re meant, first and foremost, as crimes against people—they’re not meant as crimes against stones and inanimate objects.”