U.S.- Cambodia Partnership Continues to Yield Results in the Fight Against Cultural Racketeering

Metropolitan Museum Will Repatriate 14 Looted Masterpieces Linked to Douglas Latchford

The Antiquities Coalition (AC) applauds the continuous and collaborative efforts of U.S. Law Enforcement and the Kingdom of Cambodia to recover the Kingdom’s looted heritage. The AC is proud to actively support these efforts, working hand-in-hand with the Cambodian government, law enforcement officials, and journalists. Through our advocacy and awareness campaigns, we strive to expose the crimes of notorious antiquities traffickers such as Douglas Latchford, and contribute to the ongoing pursuit of justice.

Most recently, on December 15, the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s Office, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) announced the return of a total of 16 antiquities: 14 to Cambodia and to 2 Thailand, all connected to Latchford. This announcement was further covered in a segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes, as part of a story on Cambodia’s efforts to reclaim its heritage which aired on December 17th after a year-long investigative report by the program.

The pieces returning are part of a decade-long investigation into Latchford’s crimes by HSI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for SDNY, which is still ongoing. Among the many masterpieces being returned is a sculpture of a 10th century female goddess from the ancient royal capital of Koh Ker. The twin sculpture, also looted from Koh Ker, remains on the list of the Antiquities Coalition’s Ten Most Wanted Antiquities

The Met has faced pressure in recent years to review its collections following several high-profile seizures of artworks connected with suspected traffickers, including pieces connected to Latchford. In 2013, the museum repatriated two Khmer sculptures donated by Latchford. While we applaud these efforts, we acknowledge that more must be done to repatriate remaining stolen heritage from within the Met. In their statement, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture noted that they appreciated this return as a “first step in the right direction.”

“The return of these objects from The Met to their rightful homes in Cambodia and Thailand is an encouraging step for the institution. We continue to call on the U.S. government, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security, to play a role in treating the illicit trade in cultural objects like the crime that it is.” -Tess Davis, Executive Director, Antiquities Coalition

Damian Williams, Assistant U.S. Attorney also emphasized the ongoing nature of the investigation in his public remarks on the return. He urged anyone or any institution with potentially looted antiquities to come forward: “Come see us, before we come see you.”

While Latchford escaped justice, passing away in 2020 under indictment, the U.S. and Cambodia’s unwavering efforts prove that the pursuit of accountability for cultural crimes transcends individuals, fostering a commitment to safeguarding global heritage and ensuring restitution even if it takes years.

AC and Other Industry Leaders Urge Secretary Yellen and FinCEN to Prevent Bad Actors from Exploiting the Art Market

The art market continues to be the largest unregulated market in the United States—and arguably the world—leaving it vulnerable to bad actors. Failure to close existing loopholes has allowed criminals to continue evading the law, with serious consequence. 

One glaring example of this is evident in the U.S. Government’s efforts to isolate Russia’s economy following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Despite concerted efforts to impose sanctions and tighten economic restrictions, Bloomberg reported in February that federal prosecutors are investigating major auction houses regarding Russian oligarchs, the American art market, and potential sanctions evasion. Concerns by the Department of Justice (DOJ) are valid, as a 2020 Senate report showed that individuals associated with the Kremlin had laundered vast sums through top New York auction houses to bypass U.S. sanctions from Russia’s 2014 aggression towards Ukraine. Unfortunately, these vulnerabilities persist, allowing exploitation by criminals and adversaries. Recent findings from the Pandora Papers and federal probes highlight ongoing issues. For instance, the DOJ indicted Nazem Ahmad, a prominent Lebanese collector linked to Hezbollah, for using art and luxury goods to bypass terrorism-related sanctions, enabling transactions of over $160 million in the U.S.

On August 8th, the Antiquities Coalition along with a coalition of allies dedicated to fighting financial crimes, recommended immediate and concrete actions in a letter addressed to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Andrea Gacki, the incoming director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN),  urging them to close the $30 billion American art market to criminals. 

The coalition, which includes organizations such as Transparency International U.S., International Coalition Against Illicit Economies, the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, as well as prominent AML experts like John J. Byrne urges the Treasury, and specifically FinCEN, to prioritize closing the legal and regulatory loopholes that continue to make the art trade and its participants vulnerable to criminal misuse. Steps could include: 

  • Issuing—and then finalizing—rules for antiquities dealers as required by the AML Act of 2020
  • Applying AML/CFT protections to other high-risk American art market participants
  • Working with the private sector to strengthen information sharing
  • Updating guidance and training for law enforcement to include the unique risks and opportunities presented by the American art market
  • Using existing tools, such as targeted recordkeeping and reporting requirements, as well as FinCEN alerts, to better understand and combat threats to the American art market from financial crimes like money laundering, terrorist financing, and sanctions evasion. 

To protect our shared history and responsible market actors, we must strengthen rules surrounding art and anti-money laundering (AML), counter-terrorist financing (CFT), and sanctions. In the past year, global conflicts have made these actions more critical than ever. We urge the leadership of FinCEN and the broader Treasury Department to take action to better safeguard our cultural heritage.

Read the full letter here: Bar Criminals from Exploiting the 30 billion dollar American Art Market

AC Highlights the Role of Financial Institutions in Combating Art Crime at CUNA BSA/AML Certification Conference with NASCUS

The American art market is the largest unregulated market in the world, making it vulnerable to a wide range of financial crimes. Financial institutions, like credit unions, can play a role in protecting our markets from bad actors, including those participating in the illicit trade of art and antiquities.

On November 8, Liz Fraccaro, Legal Consultant, represented the AC at the BSA/AML Certification Conference with NASCUS in Texas. Fraccaro spoke at a session, “Artful Dodgers: How Criminals Use Art and Antiquities to Facilitate Financial Crimes,” where attendees explore pathways to understand illicit financial activities and how to better protect their members and credit unions.

In her presentation, Fraccaro discussed how the lack of Anti-Money Laundering regulations on the art and antiquities markets in the United States created an attractive opportunity for financial criminals and kleptocrats to exploit for their own gains. The session also highlighted lessons learned from these illegal activities that have been useful when framing new laws and regulations and the opportunities available for stakeholders, governments, and policymakers to protect the legal art and antiquities markets.

The Antiquities Coalition, through our Financial Crimes Task Force Project, will continue to be a leader in this space as we find ways to protect the American art market from financial crimes. Learn more here.

AC Discusses Museums and Cultural Racketeering at ASOR’s Annual Meeting

In recent years, some of the world’s leading museums have been caught up in scandals, lawsuits, and even criminal prosecutions for acquiring, possessing, or even just displaying antiquities looted from their countries of origin to feed the black market in stolen art. Other cultural institutions, especially in Europe, have been thrust into the glaring spotlight for collections that were taken by colonial governments as spoils of war during conquests and occupations. 

These examples show that nearly half a century after the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in which the international community came together to fight cultural plunder and help “to make the necessary reparations,” much work remains to be done. It is crucial that everyone involved in museums—from their boards of directors, to their staff, to their donors—understand not only their legal and ethical obligations, but also the reputational risks facing institutions who have any association with disputed art.

On November 17, the AC’s Director of Programs Helena Arose joined a workshop event, “Giving it Back: Repatriation and the Ownership of Antiquity” as part of the 2023 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR) in Chicago. At the event, experts gathered to present specific examples of recent case studies, explore differing models justifying repatriation, and the examine current legal frameworks for repatriation.

In her presentation, Arose discussed the results of legal and public pressure on American museums, and how their status as trusted institutions may help them avoid accountability in the courts of law and public opinion. 

The American public is trusting museums to teach us about topics through objects. What does it say when we see examples of objects being acquired at best, no questions asked, and at worst with full knowledge of the illicit origin. When museums purchase or display a looted object, and mask that history (purposefully or not), they are betraying the public’s trust. When museums fail to listen to calls from the public to answer questions, make provenance information accessible, or repatriate an object, they are betraying the public’s trust.”

The Antiquities Coalition will continue to act as a resource as we find ways to strengthen international museum practices and global policies to fight the illicit antiquities trade.

Learn more about the ASOR Annual Meeting here.

AC Hosts A Conversation with the Editors of the Routledge Handbook of Heritage Destruction

On November 13, the Antiquities Coalition brought together the editors of the newly published Routledge Handbook of Heritage Destruction for a live conversation on the handbook and lessons learned from this resource on how to approach the problem of heritage destruction now and in the future.

The book, which came out this August, presents a comprehensive view of cultural heritage destruction, the methods scholars have used to study it, and the results of those methods. It explores legal and theoretical frameworks, as well as a variety of geographical and temporal case studies from Scandinavia and the Baltic region in WWII to Cambodia in the late 20th century, to Iraq and Syria in the last decade, and many more.

In a conversation moderated by AC’s Director of Programs, Helena Arose, the editors explained the development of the book, the purpose behind its structure and content, and lessons learned from the wide variety of case studies.

Key takeaways from the discussion included:

  • Researchers must elevate voices on the ground: It is key to respect and listen to the expertise of local populations when it comes to decisions about protecting heritage or investigating heritage destruction.
  • Heritage destruction comes in many forms: Culture is under threat from crisis, but also from development, construction, and other activity that occurs in peacetime. These types of destruction must also be studied and considered by researchers.
  • Heritage destruction is not only about the built environment: Cultural heritage destruction extends beyond tangible property, impacting people and intangible cultural elements such as traditions, practices, and livelihoods. A holistic preservation approach involves safeguarding both tangible and intangible cultural elements, recognizing their interconnectedness in cultural identity and heritage.

Learn more about the handbook herehere.

Watch the webinar here:

 

United States and Uzbekistan Sign New Cultural Property Agreement

Agreement Will Help Prevent Illicit Artifacts from Uzbekistan from Entering the American Art Market

On November 7, 2023, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Gayrat Fozilov, and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Assistant Secretary, Donald Lu, signed a bilateral cultural property agreement, committing both countries to combating the illicit trade in cultural property. This agreement closes U.S. borders to undocumented objects from Uzbekistan that may have been illegally obtained or exported, ensuring that they will not cross U.S. borders.

The Antiquities Coalition commends the United States and Uzbekistan for signing this agreement and strengthening their diplomatic ties in the fight to combat cultural racketeering. The nation’s rich heritage makes this agreement all the more necessary. Uzbekistan is home to seven world heritage sites, including Samarkand, a 7th-century B.C. Afrasiab City, known as the Crossroad of Cultures. 

With this signing, Uzbekistan became the first country in Central Asia to have a cultural property agreement with the United States (the U.S. imposed import restrictions on an emergency basis on certain categories of archaeological and ethnological material originating in Afghanistan in 2022). The Antiquities Coalition is encouraged by this action in the region, and we look forward to efforts by both nations to continue to combat this illicit trade.

Live Webinar: Understanding and Approaching An Old Problem – A Conversation with the Editors of the Routledge Handbook of Heritage Destruction

Join us for this free webinar on Monday, November 13 at 9 AM EST.

Current events around the world underscore the critical need to examine the phenomenon of cultural heritage destruction. This issue, however, is far from new and takes on diverse forms and contexts, ranging from conflicts and wars to natural disasters and climate change, as well as urban development and construction.

The recently published Routledge Handbook of Heritage Destruction tackles this topic head on, presenting a comprehensive view of heritage destruction, the methods scholars have used to study it, and the results those methods have produced. On November 13, the Antiquities Coalition will bring together the editors for a live conversation on the development of the handbook and lessons learned from this resource on how to approach the problem of heritage destruction now and in the future. 

The discussion will be moderated by Helena Arose, Director of Programs for the Antiquities Coalition. Register here.

 

AC and EHRF Highlight the Importance of Protecting Cultural Heritage in eniGma Magazine

In the Middle East, cultural heritage is an unparalleled resource, inspiring artists, historians, and students to tell a story of the past. However, this heritage is under threat from bad actors looking to profit through the illicit trade of art and antiquities. 

In a recent interview with eniGma Magazine, our Co-Founder Peter Herdrich, and the Chairman of the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation (EHRF), Abdelhamid Salah, shared how the two organizations are collaborating to make culture-defining art widely accessible and how the wisdom of the past helps inform the future. The AC and EHRF are working with local communities to preserve the cultural heritage of countries in conflict and experiencing environmental risks, ultimately helping safeguard precious heritage for generations to come. 

With a rise in the illicit trade of art and antiquities, it is more important than ever for these two organizations to work together to bring digital access, conservation, and human solutions to an international audience. 

The Antiquities Coalition is proud to partner with EHRF and looks forward to future collaborations and continuing to work together to support and grow cultural heritage teams across the globe. 

Check out the full interview with eniGma Magazine here.

AC’s Ten Most Wanted Antiquities List Featured In The Guardian: UNESCO Planning a Virtual Museum of Stolen Cultural Artifacts

UNESCO, the culture branch of the United Nations, announced its plans for a first-of-its-kind virtual museum that will showcase looted antiquities from around the world. The goal of UNESCO’s proposed museum is to raise awareness of the dangers of cultural racketeering and the importance of cultural heritage. 

UNESCO has partnered with Interpol to develop a list of artifacts to virtually display utilizing a database of over 52,000 cultural heritage pieces that have been stolen from museums, collections, and archaeological sites worldwide. UNESCO will likely not release the featured objects in the museum until its opening in 2025. 

The Guardian was the first to detail UNESCO’s plan and referenced the AC’s Ten Most Wanted antiquities list, an illustrated guide to some of the most significant looted, stolen, and missing artifacts from around the world.

The Antiquities Coalition applauds UNESCO’s efforts to raise awareness around the trafficking of art and antiquities and return cultural heritage to its rightful home. Presenting the stories and significance of stolen heritage is a critical piece in the effort to combat looting, and the AC is hopeful that this will lead to the eventual repatriation of missing objects.

Check out the full article from The Guardian here.

Gods Threatened by the Art Market and Warfare: The AC Interviews Routledge Handbook of Heritage Destruction Authors

The art market’s demand for Cambodia’s material heritage has been high since the 1960s, with many of the nation’s sacred artifacts entering the illegal art market. In a chapter for The Routledge Handbook of Heritage Destruction, Antiquities Coalition Director of Programs, Helena Arose, alongside Angela Chiu and Ben Evans, takes a close look at the demand for Cambodian heritage and provides an overview of the history of its looting and protection. 

In a brief interview, Helena Arose, Angela Chiu, and Ben Evans answer questions about the history of looting of Cambodian antiquities, the impact of cultural racketeering on the nation, and what lies ahead.

Second Artifact Located from AC’s Ten Most Wanted Antiquities List

The Art Newspaper Names Owner and Location of the Kwer’ata Re’esu Icon

The Antiquities Coalition (AC) welcomes new information published by The Art Newspaper identifying the location of the Kwer’ata Re’esu Icon, a 500-year-old icon on our Ten Most Wanted list. This is the second artifact from the list, which serves as an illustrated guide of looted, stolen, or missing cultural treasures from around the world, to be found.

On September 25, following an investigation that spanned decades, The Art Newspaper released the owner’s name and the first full-color photos of the artifact. The icon is located in Portugal, and the owner was reported to be Isabel Reis Santos, heir to the Portuguese art historian Luiz Reis Santos. 

The Kwer’ata Re’esu icon was looted from Ethiopia in 1868 by Richard Holmes, an agent of the British Museum sent to bring back manuscripts and antiquities. When Holmes returned to the museum, he failed to turn over the relic, and it was ultimately sold at Christie’s in 1917 following Holmes’ death in 1911. 

Now that the icon has been located, the AC joins the calls for its return to Ethiopia, following the repatriation of other treasures looted from Maqdala by the British last month. However, the restitution of this artifact is not possible without the support of the Portuguese government. In 2002, the Portuguese Ministry of Culture issued an order forbidding the export of the painting without explicit authorization, and the order will need to be lifted to facilitate a prompt return. 

The AC credits The Art Newspaper for their investigation and willingness to share these new insights and information with the public, along with all those who have contributed to efforts to track down the revered icon. Read their full article and see the colored pictures of Kwer’ata Re’esu here

To learn more about Kwer’ata Re’esu and other antiquities that have been looted in times of crisis and conflict, explore the Antiquities Coalition’s Ten Most Wanted list here.

AC Founder and Chairman Highlights Yemen’s Fight Against Cultural Racketeering in Joint Op-Ed

Deborah Lehr Joins Ambassador of Yemen to the U.S. Mohammed Al-Hadhrami to Showcase Yemen’s Example of Using Close Engagement with the U.S. Government to Safeguard Cultural Heritage

In the midst of a humanitarian crisis following the Houthis’ coup in 2014, Yemen achieved a bilateral cultural property agreement with the United States, committing both countries to combating the illicit trade of antiquities. Signed on August 30, this agreement builds on the emergency import restrictions put in place in 2020.

In a new op-ed for The Hill, our Chairman and Founder Deborah Lehr and Ambassador of Yemen to the United States Mohammed Al-Hadhrami write that Yemen’s example of using close engagement with the U.S. government to fight antiquities trafficking can serve as an example to other countries around the world:

Recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan and Niger show that we cannot always predict when and where culture will be under threat. A proactive system that allows quick responses to crises or emergency situations is a more effective approach for responding to growing threats of cultural racketeering. Yemen’s case of using close engagement with the U.S. government to fight antiquities trafficking can serve as an example to other countries around the world. It helped achieve the successful repatriation of 79 of its antiquities and the expansion of cooperation with cultural institutions for the preservation and presentation of its cultural heritage.

The Antiquities Coalition is a proud supporter of this agreement, which closes U.S. borders to looted art and antiquities from Yemen while making certain the U.S. art market does not contribute to Yemen’s tragedy.

Read the full op-ed here.