The Latest

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

March 4, 2024

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.