A Special Live Debate: Do Archaeologists Have an Ethical Obligation to Report Looting?

Debate You’re a field archaeologist, you watch a looter walk away with artifacts — and you don’t report the looting. Are you in the wrong?

Yes, says Prof. Blythe Balestrieri in the most recent Antiquities Coalition Policy Brief. She found many field archaeologists admit to inaction when they encounter looting, and calls for change.

But some field archaeologists challenge her and say it’s not so black and white.


Join us for a special online debate as experts argue different answers to this important ethical question, live, April 29th at 11 AM Eastern. Moderated by Antiquities Coalition Founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors Deborah Lehr.

AC Testifies in Support of New Costa Rica MOU

Stone spheres several feet in diameter dot groves in southern Costa Rica’s Diquís Delta, monuments to the indigenous culture that created the distinctive orbs as early as 1,500 years ago. UNESCO added these spheres and surrounding archeological sites to its World Heritage List in 2014 — unfortunately, after a history of disturbance. For example, when the United Fruit Company’s agricultural activities exposed many of the area’s archeological remains in the 1930s, many of those remains were looted.

Costa Rica’s archaeological record stretches back over 14,000 years. Now, to protect the country’s cultural heritage from illicit trade, the government of Costa Rica is requesting U.S. import restrictions on archeological material from the nation.

At an April 15th meeting, the Antiquity Coalition’s Executive Director Tess Davis addressed the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee in support of the proposed MOU. The proposed import restrictions would help to protect both our shared cultural heritage and participants in the legitimate art market.

For additional information on the importance of cultural MOUs, read more here.

Read our letter in support of the US-Costa Rica MOU here.

AC in the News: Museum of the Bible Returns Artifacts in Good First Step, Tess Davis Tells The New York Times

With a $50 million desire for artifacts relating to the Old and New Testaments, the Green family bought up approximately 50,000 artifacts from the Middle East and North Africa. While building such a formidable collection, the collectors failed to heed “red flags”—the phrase federal prosecutors used when in 2017 the Greens had thousands of artifacts delivered to the family’s Hobby Lobby company headquarters “misleadingly described as ceramic tile samples.” At that time, they gave up the artifacts, paid a $3 million dollar fine, and admitted “mistakes.”

Museum of the Bible
Museum of the Bible. Credit: Wiki Commons

But now the Museum of the Bible, founded by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, is admitting even more mistakes. Sixteen vaunted “Dead Sea scrolls” are actually modern fakes. Soon after this announcement, Mr. Green also made another, that he will return to Iraq and Egypt a trove of 5,000 papyri fragments and 6,500 clay objects sullied by “insufficient provenance.”

Taken together, these actions are a commendable first step—if the parties continue their work to come clean and rectify wrongs. “Mr. Green is doing the right thing by repatriating these thousands of artifacts, but this gesture must be the start of the story, not the end,” Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, told the New York Times.

If the Museum continues in the right direction, the Antiquities Coalition is optimistic that its transparency could cause others to adopt #BuyerBeware practices. Executive Director Davis continued, “The global black market for Middle Eastern antiquities is increasingly driven by biblical scholars, seminaries and the faithful seeking to own a piece of the Holy Land. Given Mr. Green’s platform and other resources, he is in an unparalleled position to stop this demand.”


Read the full story here.

AC in the News: How Maps Can Combat Looting

Daesh (ISIS), the Nazis, Al Qaeda, the Taliban — all engaged in cultural racketeering. More recently, insurgent groups in Yemen are seizing on crisis to loot and traffic antiquities. Stolen goods from these groups and more infuse the global art market, and looted treasures can turn up in premier collections. A key question for buyers who must beware looted artifacts: How do they get there?

One way to articulate the answer is with maps. To cast light on shadowy stories from the black market, the Antiquities Coalition launched a series of interactive online Story Maps that use powerful Esri software to trace the paths of individual artifacts from their theft to the present.

In a new blog post, the mapping and spatial analysis experts at Esri examine the problem of illicit trade and talk with the Antiquities Coalition’s Executive Director Tess Davis about the benefits of spatially representing illicit trade networks. “Maps are crucial,” Davis said, “because they communicate to scholars, government officials, and the public what is at stake and how critical the threat is.”

Read the full blog post here, and explore our Story Maps here.

The Long Journey Home: Story Maps of Cultural Racketeering

Ever wonder how invaluable looted artifacts travel unimpeded across international borders? A new online mapping project by the Antiquities Coalition allows you to follow the money, the criminals, and the art.

How did an ancient Lebanese sculpture of a bull’s head end up in New York’s leading museum? How did a Hindu stone warrior travel from a Cambodian jungle temple to a major international auction house? How did a limestone soldier get pilfered from Iran, only to get stolen yet again in Canada?

The Antiquities Coalition answers these questions and more with a new series of interactive online Story Maps that follow these priceless objects as they are looted from conflict-torn countries and smuggled through underground networks, only to be discovered at the art market’s most prestigious institutions.

These fully immersive timelines combine expert accounts, striking visuals, court records, and personalized details. And, for the first time, Esri software—the most powerful mapping and spatial data technology available—is being used to narrate these tales of cultural racketeering, all with the simple scroll of a mouse.

The first release, Like a Bull in a Museum, uncovers the saga of the Sidon Bull’s head, a 2,300-year-old sculpture that was looted during Lebanon’s civil war of the 1980s and then mysteriously ended up at New York’s renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art. After decades on the black market, passing from a Swiss tax-haven to a hedge fund billionaire, what happened to the Sidon Bull’s head? Follow the Antiquities Coalition’s first Story Map to find out and stay tuned for future releases.

To explore the Story Map, click here, or visit www.theantiquitiescoalition.org



About the Antiquities Coalition 

The Antiquities Coalition unites a diverse group of experts in the fight against cultural racketeering: the illicit trade in antiquities by organized criminals and terrorist organizations. This plunder for profit funds crime and conflict around the world—erasing our past and threatening our future. The Coalition’s innovative and practical solutions tackle crimes against heritage head on, empowering communities and countries in crisis. Learn more at theantiquitiescoalition.org. Follow us on Twitter @CombatLooting.

Review: Blood Buddhas, Featuring Deborah Lehr, Successfully Dives into Theft of Priceless Indian Antiquities

Blood Buddhas
Blood Buddhas, Nikhil Singh Rajput

Blood Buddhas, a documentary about the theft of Indian antiquities, gives viewers an inside look at the smuggling of antiquities, many of which are used to fund terrorist organizations. The film features Deborah Lehr, Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, and other experts who explain the magnitude of the situation and the consequences of inaction. 

A recent article, written by Ashish Dhar for OpInida, reviews the film and applauds it for aptly showing how deep societal ignorance runs on just how valuable these pieces are to India’s society and culture. 

Although the documentary deals with a grim subject, it does give us many reasons to smile, primary among which is introducing the viewers to the phenomenal work done by India Pride Project in bringing the gods back home,” Dhar states.  

“This is significant because not only does the organization identify artefacts, track their current location and coordinate with intergovernmental agencies to bring them back to India, they are absolutely clear about the fact that getting the murtis back to India is only half the battle won if they end up being relegated to the neglect of dilapidated warehouses of the ASI.” 

To read more about Blood Buddhas feature in OpIndia, click here.

What Responsibility Do Archaeologists Have in the Fight Against Cultural Racketeering?

AIAIn an upcoming policy brief by Dr. Blythe Bowman-Balestrieri, the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank will be tackling an important question.

Do archaeologists have an ethical obligation to report looting?

To get feedback from those working in the field, we convened a roundtable discussion around this topic on January 4 at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. Input from professional archaeologists, students, lawyers, and interested members of the public contributed to a lively and productive discussion.

The conversation was moderated by Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition Tess Davis and Dr. Bowman-Balestrieri, a trained archaeologist and criminologist, who has extensively studied the illicit trade in ancient art and artifacts. Her research has shown that when archaeologists encounter evidence of looting, nearly a quarter fail to take any action.

In her forthcoming think tank paper, she will explore the reasons behind this inaction, the implications of it, and how the profession can improve.

Stay tuned for Dr. Bowman-Balestrieri’s policy brief, and check out past policy briefs, at the Antiquities Coalition Think Tank.

50 Years After the 1970 UNESCO Convention, The Work Continues

Dr. Neil Brodie presents on EU Regulation 2019/880

2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, providing an opportunity to reflect on the successes and challenges of its implementation.

AIA Annual Meeting: The Future of the 1970 UNESCO Convention

That was the focus of a workshop at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting, held from January 2-5 in Washington, D.C. On January 4th, scholars and experts convened to discuss Antiquities, Illicit Trafficking, and Public Advocacy: The Future of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The workshop also honored the work of Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, recipient of the AIA 2020 Outstanding Public Service Award.

AC In the News: Deborah Lehr on Bloomberg to Discuss Targeting of Iranian Cultural sites

Deborah LehrAntiquities Coalition Chair and Founder Deborah Lehr sat down with David Westin on Bloomberg Markets last week to discuss reports that the U.S. government would consider targeting Iran’s cultural sites if Iran retaliated against the United States for the death of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force.

What You Need to Know

Following Soleimani’s death, President Trump warned “if Iran strikes any Americans or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites… some at a very high level and important to Iran AND the Iranian culture.”  The intentional targeting of cultural sites is a war crime under The Hague Convention and is also contrary to existing U. S. policy.

“The administration has been a leader on this issue,” said Lehr. “They have been very active in negotiating with countries in the Middle East and North Africa, who have been suffering from violent extremism, suffering from the destruction of heritage, and negotiating cultural [memoranda of understanding] as well as using cultural diplomacy.”

Iran is home to 22 cultural World Heritage Sites, including the famed Persepolis, which was built by Darius I in 518 BC and then later sacked by Alexander the Great in 320 AD.

The President and the U.S. Department of Defense have since reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to safeguarding cultural heritage, even during times of conflict.

The Antiquities Coalition is encouraged by the swift reaction to the President’s threats, both by others in the administration, as well as people around the world. The State Department has been a leader in using cultural diplomacy to build ties, especially in the Middle East. This type of action would undermine both the spirit and the letter of the law.  Lehr commended the Defense Department for their work in this area and the President for clarifying his position on the matter. “If we can take a positive out of this negative, it definitely is that it raised awareness,” she said.

To watch the full interview, starting at the 29:24 mark,  click here.

To read the Antiquities Coalition’s statement that “culture should not be a military target,” click here.

Archaeological Institute of America Recognizes Leaders in the Field

AIA AwardsAntiquities Coalition Congratulates Honorees for Their Work to Study and Protect Our Past

Our partner, the Archaeological Institute of America, the oldest and largest archaeological organization in the United States, held its Annual Meeting from January 2-5 in Washington, D.C. The AIA Awards Ceremony, which celebrates leaders in the profession, took place on January 4.

This year, the AIA recognized the importance of the fight against the looting and trafficking of antiquities through honoring the tireless work of Dr. Patty Gerstenblith with the Outstanding Public Service Award.


A New Art Exhibit Shows Italy’s Commitment to Preserving Cultural Heritage

Brava ItaliaBrava Italia and Welcome, Generale Riccardo! A Commitment to Cultural Preservation

Italy’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Mariangela Zappia opened a new exhibit of artworks recovered by the Italian Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale, Italy’s law enforcement agency responsible for the protection of cultural heritage.

The exhibit opened on Tuesday in New York and includes cultural objects repatriated by Carabinieri investigations. It underscores the UN’s commitment to cultural heritage preservation.

Ambassador Zappia and United Nations Secretary General António Gutteres highlighted Italy’s work, discussing its pivotal role at the United Nations in advocating cultural heritage preservation.

Both diplomats remarked on Italy’s efforts to get unanimous passage of the groundbreaking UN Security Council Resolution 2347 that outlines UN policy on how to fight looting and the illicit trafficking of antiquities, the importance of which the Antiquities Coalition has written about before.


AC In the News: The New York Times Speaks to Deborah Lehr on the Reported U.S. Targeting of Iranian Cultural Sites

Persepolis in Iran
Persepolis in Iran – Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Since last week’s strike on Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, many have speculated on the long-term implications and the future of the relationship between the United States and Iran. One area of heated discussion is Washington’s stance on the country’s cultural sites, in response to reports that they were included on the U.S. military target list.

Antiquities Coalition Chairman and Co-Founder Deborah Lehr commented on the situation to the New York Times, stating: “The U.S. has taken a leadership role in the protection of antiquities from destruction and illicit trade, particularly in the Middle East. It would be a shame to see that global goodwill disappear by the intentional targeting and the destruction of cultural sites.”