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’s Chairman and Founder Appointed to the Advisory Board for the World Archaeology Summit

The Royal Commission for AlUla has named Deborah Lehr, the Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, to the founding Advisory Board for the World Archaeology Summit. Lehr launched the Antiquities Coalition in 2014 to partner with governments, NGOs and other like minded organizations across the world to fight against antiquities trafficking and its use by bad actors to fund terrorism and organized crime. 

The World Archaeology Summit, launched in 2023, features an interdisciplinary program and diverse participants, bringing together top minds to advance archaeology and cultural heritage management, among others. By creating this environment, the summit aims to facilitate collaboration and innovation, as well as explore how these different sectors can support and enhance one another to address challenges and develop opportunities. 

During the inaugural summit, Lehr joined global experts on a panel entitled “Cross-Pollination: How Can Archaeology Support Interdisciplinary Innovation.” Speakers discussed strategies for non-archaeologists to help support the science of archaeology and address problems in the field, such as the looting and trafficking of ancient art and artifacts. AC Advisor Ambassador Yasser Elnagger and legal consultant Liz Fraccaro also participated as speakers. 

The Antiquities Coalition commends the Royal Commission for AlUla for hosting the World Archaeology Summit and for efforts to bring together archaeologists and other experts to develop heritage-based solutions to contemporary problems.

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.

G20 Maintains its Focus on Fighting Cultural Racketeering

2023 Leader’s Statement and Ministerial Outputs Reinforce Commitment to Culture

From September 9-10, global leaders convened in India for the 2023 G20 Summit. The historic meeting resulted in the New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, which includes strong language calling for the “full recognition and protection of culture.”

We call for the full recognition and protection of culture with its intrinsic value as a transformative driver and an enabler for the achievement of the SDGs and advance the inclusion of culture as a standalone goal in future discussions on a possible post-2030 development agenda. We reiterate our commitment to strengthen our fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property at national, regional or international levels to enable its return and restitution to their countries and communities of origin as relevant, and call for sustained dialogue and action in that endeavour, with a view to strengthen cultural diplomacy and intercultural exchanges, consistent with national law and relevant UNESCO Conventions. We encourage the international community to protect the living cultural heritage, including the intellectual property, notably with regard to the impact of the over commercialization and misappropriation of such living heritage on the sustainability and on the livelihoods of practitioners and community bearers as well as Indigenous Peoples.

The AC welcomes this commitment in the declaration, which we first called for in our Task Force Report, Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Conflict Zones: A Roadmap for the G20 to Combat the Illicit Trade, published in 2021.

This outcome emphasizes the result of the G20 Culture Ministerial, held late last month. On August 26, cultural leaders from G20 member states, invited countries, and representatives from international organizations gathered in Varanasi for the third G20 Culture Ministerial, which concluded with the release of the Kashi Cultural Pathway Outcome Document. The statement recognized looting and illicit trafficking of cultural property as a serious crime and reiterated the G20’s commitment to fighting cultural racketeering. It put forward four specific calls for action: 

  1. Encouraging the ratification and effective implementation of international agreements and conventions as relevant…while also ensuring progress and better implementation of international standards
  2. Ensuring cooperation and the strengthening of appropriate tools… to better support transnational investigations and prosecution on cultural crimes
  3. Further encouraging cross-sectoral cooperation and dialogue among cultural heritage and disaster-risk management stakeholders at the local , national, regional and international level,
  4. Strengthening preventive action and regulation of illicitly exported cultural property more

The ministerial followed four meetings of the Culture Working Group (CWG), which convened over the course of India’s presidency to examine priority topics. Executive Director Tess Davis represented the Antiquities Coalition at the first thematic webinar held on March 28, 2023. Davis’s remarks and the AC’s 2021 Task Force Report were both referenced in “G20 Culture: Shaping the Global Narrative for Inclusive Growth,” published by the CWG.

The AC commends the G20 for prioritizing this issue and demonstrating the political will needed to combat looting and trafficking from the top down. We look forward to Brazil continuing and building on this important initiative as they host the G20 in 2024. 

Read the Kashi Cultural Pathway here

Read G20 Culture: Shaping the Global Narrative for Inclusive Growth here.

Antiquities Coalition Cited by G20 Culture Working Group

Working Group Publication References the AC and Task Force Report

Building on the previous work of Saudi Arabia, Italy, and Indonesia, the Government of India led the G20 to prioritize and take action on cultural heritage protection during its 2023 presidency.  

Under the leadership of India, the Culture Working Group convened four times over the course of the year examined the following topics:

  1. Protection and restitution of cultural property
  2. Harnessing living heritage for a sustainable future
  3. Promotion of cultural and creative industries and creative economy
  4. Leveraging digital technologies for the promotion and protection of culture

These meetings were supported by four thematic webinars, held between March and April of 2023, which were focused on fostering collaborative dialogue and knowledge sharing on each priority topic. 

The Antiquities Coalition, the only non-governmental organization to participate in the first thematic webinar, was represented by Executive Director Tess Davis, who delivered five recommendations for the G20 to combat looting and trafficking. 

The discussion and outcomes of the thematic webinars were published by the Culture Working Group in a paper titled “G20 CULTURE: Shaping the Global Narrative for Inclusive Growth.” Davis’s remarks and the AC’s 2021 Task Force Report, Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Conflict Zones: A Roadmap for the G20 to Combat the Illicit Trade, were both referenced in the paper alongside other expert reports.

Read G20 Culture: Shaping the Global Narrative for Inclusive Growth here.

Catch up on the first thematic webinar here