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AC Executive Director Tess Davis Discusses Impact of COVID-19, Web Marketplaces and the Antiquities Coalition on the Art World in New Art Scoping Podcast Episode

December 3, 2020

Art historian and museum leader Maxwell L. Anderson released Episode 38 of his Art Scoping podcast, dedicated to spotlighting the thoughts and efforts of art world leaders, on December 5. The latest episode’s protagonist was our very own Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition.

Davis discussed a wide swath of topics with Anderson, focusing particularly on recent Antiquities Coalition efforts and the tenuous, evolving nature of the art world at large.

Key takeaways include: 

    • The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced crushing blows and increased volatility to the art world: Stay-at-home orders around the globe left many cultural sites with little to no security protections for several months, rendering them “sitting ducks for criminals,” Davis said, referring to the number of lockdown-facilitated crimes compiled by reports the Antiquities Coalition released in May and August. The shuttering of brick-and-mortar establishments has also inflicted “unprecedented” losses and layoffs, leading experts to anticipate that a significant portion of museums and art businesses will fail to survive the pandemic. In addition, pandemic-related financial unrest has led the art market to become increasingly volatile, with museums selling off their works for “hard cash,” investors leaving the stock market in favor of tangible assets (such as cultural property), and collectors taking out loans from auction houses by using their own collections as collateral. “It’s really a critical time, and whether bad actors profit at the expense of legitimate businesses — it’s going to hinge on how we all respond to this,” Davis said.
    • Online antiquities sales, already on the rise before the pandemic, have exploded in the era of COVID-19: Davis cited “archaeological watchdogs,” such as the ATHAR Project, in pointing out a growing trend of posts in Facebook groups dedicated to the trade in pillaged cultural material. “It has been encouraging to see Facebook taking action against this — [but] the words that they’ve made, the statements they’ve made, the policies they’ve made… we’re going to have to see this backed up by action.” Davis said, referencing Facebook’s June 23 announcement that it would begin to delete any content “that attempts to buy, sell or trade in historical artifacts” on Facebook or Instagram. On a positive note, Davis added that because the pandemic has complicated airline travel so greatly, experts are expecting that more smugglers will have to resort to selling antiquities online and shipping them via postal services. “Hopefully these adaptations will make it easier for law enforcement to track and to catch these criminals,” Davis said.
    • In light of increased online traction for antiquities sales, The Antiquities Coalition has created a list of “Ten Most Wanted Antiquities”: “What we’re hoping to do is to raise awareness of some of the more infamous cases of ancient art and artifacts that are missing — that have disappeared into the black market, or disappeared otherwise — in the hopes that some of these are out there, somewhere. And so we’ve highlighted pieces from around the world, representing a number of different cultures, that, again, have disappeared… and our hope is that someone will see this and help to bring these pieces home,” Davis explained.

To listen to the full podcast, click here.