AC Discusses the Role of Cultural Heritage Professionals in Protecting Ukraine’s Heritage

February 2023 marks one year since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Among the many tragedies of war, including the countless lives lost, the communities and cities decimated, and the ruin of the economy, the plunder and destruction of the country’s rich cultural heritage is another devastation.

UNESCO reports that over 230 sites of cultural significance have been damaged or destroyed to date. Last month, it was reported that more than 15,000 pieces of art and artifacts have been pillaged, including a body of Scythian gold and nearly the entire collection of the Kherson Regional Art museum.

Priceless to the Ukrainian people, these treasures have the potential to be a valuable commodity to the cash-strapped Russian State and may greatly undermine the U.S.-led sanctions regime, Deborah Lehr, Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, warns.

On February 6, the Antiquities Coalition gathered cultural heritage experts to observe one year of this international crisis and discuss the responsibility the U.S. and all of us have to better support the Ukrainian people and their heritage.

Moderated by Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, the panel of speakers included:

  • Dr. Kate Harrell, an archeologist working in international cultural heritage protection, investigator with the Conflict Observatory, and co-author of a recent policy brief for the AC Think Tank.
  • Dr. Sam Hardy, a cultural property criminologist and Head of Illicit Trade Research at the Heritage Management Organization, working closely with colleagues on the ground in Ukraine.
  • Dr. Chris Jasparro, a geographer and archaeologist specializing in cultural property protection and transnational security issues on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. Dr. Jasparro is also the co-author of another Think Thank policy brief.
  • Damian Koropeckyj, a consultant in cultural heritage risk management and co-author of the same policy brief as Dr. Harrell.

Davis emphasized that the American art market, valued at $28 billion and making up 43% of the global market, is likely the end destination for illicit objects looted from Ukraine or other areas of conflict. 

“When faced with similar crises, Washington has closed U.S. borders to suspect cultural material by requiring that at-risk imports have proof of legal export and authorizing law enforcement to seize those that do not,” Davis said. “This simple but effective step has made a major difference in past crises, but it has yet to happen today.”

The panelists shared tangible ways that foreign agencies, including governments and NGOs, and cultural heritage professionals can positively impact heritage preservation in Ukraine or other areas of conflict:

  • Inventory your current collection. There’s a growing reliance on the internet to understand what lives in museum collections, but bad actors like Russia can cut off the internet and eliminate the ability to determine what’s still secure. Specific to Ukraine, Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO) is an initiative of over 1,500 international volunteers who are collaborating online to digitize and preserve Ukrainian cultural heritage.
  • Cooperation with other international heritage organizations. Rather than offering individual solutions to solve the Ukraine crisis, our panelists say working together on a global solution could achieve more effective results.
  • Employ Ukrainians in Ukraine. Our panel flagged that applications for funding get rejected because of the risk to workers, but Ukrainians desire to support their communities. These individuals will likely continue their work to preserve and protect their heritage, but will they have the support to safely do so?

As global conflicts continue to threaten communities and their unique heritage, the Antiquities Coalition hopes cultural heritage professionals will better understand how to play a role during times of crises to better preserve and protect our shared history. Watch the full webinar here.

Live Webinar: One Year After the Ukraine Invasion – How Can Cultural Heritage Professionals Play a Role?

Join us for this free webinar on February 6 at 10:00 AM New York 

February 24, 2023, marks one year since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, resulting in the immense destruction of livelihoods, communities, and cultural heritage. As efforts to strip Ukraine of its cultural identity continue today, the Antiquities Coalition will convene cultural heritage experts on February 6 to reflect on and discuss strategies for preserving and protecting the country’s history.

Speakers include Damian Koropeckyj and Dr. Kate Harrell who recently co-authored a policy brief for the Antiquities Coalition’s Think Tank. In their brief, Harrell and Koropeckyj call on cultural heritage professionals to play an active part in the ongoing conversation about taking down cultural monuments (or monument removal), given the field’s wealth of knowledge regarding the care, conservation, documentation relocation, storage, and removal of cultural property. The authors provide a series of recommendations to support heritage professionals in developing such principles based on what has worked in the museum context, which have relevance not only for the situation in Ukraine but also around the world.     

“Moving forward together as an international community of experts in heritage is particularly important in the face of issues as fraught as monumental removal,” Harrell and Koropeckyj write. “The policy recommendations that follow should be considered a call for action for both heritage workers and their executive organizational bodies.”

In addition to the destruction of monuments and sites, experts also report that the invasion represents the biggest art heist since the Nazis in World War II, with tens of thousands of pieces looted, including avant-garde oil paintings and Scythian gold. Looting and destruction of cultural heritage has huge implications for the war—in 2022, Dr. Christopher Jasparro warned in his co-authored policy brief for the AC Think Tank that historical propaganda and the exploitation of cultural heritage have become a central component of the Kremlin’s information warfare campaigns. Jasparro will join the webinar to provide an update on this situation, along with Dr. Samuel Hardy, a cultural property criminologist who is conducting research on Ukraine.

From recent conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and now, Ukraine, the international community has seen the catastrophic impact of war on cultural heritage. Ukrainians will face significant challenges in recovering their art and artifacts and rebuilding their communities. Law enforcement, governments, heritage professionals, and the art market can play a role in protecting Ukrainian heritage. The Antiquities Coalition looks forward to your participation in this important conversation. 

Moderated by Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition. 

AC Explores International Policy to Combat Looting During AIA’s Annual Meeting

In April 2003, looters broke into the National Museum of Iraq, stealing and destroying nearly 15,000 objects, of which only an approximate one-third have been recovered. Iraq’s cultural heritage continues to suffer looting and damage throughout conflict and beyond, exposing significant gaps in and prompting reevaluation of U.S. and international cultural heritage protection efforts from all sectors, including law, policy, academia, government, military, and the public.

Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, and Helena Arose, Project Director of the Antiquities Coalition, explored the scope of developments in cultural heritage protection over the past 20 years during the Archeological Institute of America’s (AIA) Annual Meeting from January 5-8, 2023.

Arose and Davis organized the session Cultural Heritage Protection After Iraq: Advances And Developments Over The Past 20 Years, where both spoke alongside other cultural heritage protection and preservation experts, including:

  • Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, research professor of law at DePaul University and director of its Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law.
  • Larry Schwartz, AC advisor and Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
  • Dr. Catherine P. Foster, Executive Director for the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee (CHCC) in the U.S. Department of State Cultural Heritage Center.
  • Corine Wegener, the director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI).
  • Dr. Brian I. Daniels, AIA’s Vice President for Cultural Heritage.
  • Dr. Neil Brodie, a top expert in the field of antiquities trafficking and a Corresponding Member of the AIA.

Davis detailed the Antiquities Coalition’s partnerships with the State Department, ministries of foreign affairs, defense, intelligence, and law enforcement communities and what is still needed in international policy to effectively mitigate the illicit trade of art and antiquities. 

The looting of Iraq’s National Museum marked the beginning of widespread pillage at archaeological sites across the country by everyone from opportunistic criminals to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. This event changed the global conversation on cultural racketeering, raising awareness among the general public and policymakers, directly and indirectly leading to concrete changes in law and policy around the world. 

A report by the Antiquities Coalition and Dr. Brodie, Safeguarding Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones: A Roadmap for the G20 to Combat the Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects, emphasized that the illicit trade in cultural objects is not a preservation failure, but a failure of governance, law, diplomacy, civil society, and markets.

A lack of political will remains the main obstacle to positive change, but convening world leaders to raise awareness and grow support for coordinated action will help to recognize that antiquities trafficking is not just a threat to our shared history, but to human rights, national economies, and global security.

The Antiquities Coalition thanks the AIA for hosting and sponsoring this vital conversation and looks forward to playing a role in future policy developments to preserve and protect our shared history.





AC Founder Explores China’s Relationship with Archaeology in New Publication

Every country is home to a wealth of cultural masterpieces that represent thousands of years of history. As bad actors continue to loot and destroy heritage across the world, global cooperation and respect for one another’s culture are key to fighting the illicit antiquities trade. 

The China-Europe-America Global Initiative recently tackled this issue with regards to China in its third volume of China and the World. Edited by David Gosset, Founder of the CEA Global Initiative, the publication is authored by 20 global cultural and art experts, including Deborah Lehr, Chair and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition.

Lehr contributed Chapter 13, The Role of Archaeology in the Relationship between China and the World. In it she writes, “China’s role as a powerhouse in the global art market means that they are uniquely well positioned to take on a more proactive role in fighting the illicit trade of artifacts from other ancient societies that share their goal.” She also notes that, “Ultimately, it is critical to remember that cultural racketeering is not just a threat to the legitimate art market, but to our shared history, human rights, national economies, and global security.”

Other chapters focus on the global opportunity for partnerships, building a shared culture, the role of art and design, and more.

Gosset emphasized the goal of the publication during the launch event, saying, “Culture is the keystone of what we are doing and what we should do.”

The Antiquities Coalition previously collaborated with the CEA Global Initiative in 2022 for a global dialogue on National Museum Day. The event explored the vital responsibility of museums in the fight against cultural racketeering, featuring remarks from Lehr and Davis.

Learn more and purchase the book here.

AC’s Tess Davis Explores Cultural Racketeering in Florida During WAWLT Podcast

The American art market comprises 42% of the international art market, making it the largest in the world. Because of its scale, U.S. collectors, policymakers, and the public are uniquely positioned to play a role in combating the illicit trade of art and antiquities. 

While most individuals assume looted and stolen artifacts are prevalent only in the U.S.’s largest museums, these objects are located across the nation and appear frequently in smaller museums and at premier art shows.

Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, spoke to David Quiñones, one of the hosts of the Why Are We Like This? podcast, to discuss the global issue of cultural racketeering and how the illicit antiquities trade thrives in the podcast’s home state of Florida.

Miami Beach is the U.S. location for the Art Basel show, an art fair hosting some of the top galleries and auction houses in one place. Davis notes that because efforts to mitigate the illicit antiquities trade have largely focused on New York, illegal art markets are emerging in cities like Miami Beach, Houston, and more.

There have also been significant repatriations from Florida residents in recent years, most notably from Netscape founder James H. Clark. Clark’s collection included tens of millions of dollars worth of artifacts smuggled and trafficked from Southeast Asia, including the 1000-year-old statue of Ganesha.

Davis emphasizes that awareness around the illicit antiquities trade is growing and museum patrons are increasingly holding these institutions accountable for the stolen objects within their walls. As more individuals speak out about cultural racketeering, we can expect to see more repatriations from collectors and museums and vital policy change from national and international governments.

Listen to the full episode here.

AC Explores Connections Between Cultural Racketeering and Corruption at the World’s Largest Forum in the Fight Against Corruption

As long as there have been tombs, there have been tomb raiders. For hundreds of years, civilizations have attempted to preserve their history from enemies seeking to plunder them, but today we’re seeing these crimes take place on an unprecedented scale. Globalization and technology are advancing at a much faster rate than our governments, law enforcement, and public policy can fight back. 

These bad actors also have an increased opportunity to strike when regions are experiencing conflict. In Iraq and Syria, war has led to a surge of looting of archeological sites and the production of counterfeits as the illicit antiquities trade generates substantial revenue for conducting acts of violence on local and international scales.

On December 9, 2022, Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, and Helena Arose, Project Director of the Antiquities Coalition, were honored to speak during the International Anti-Corruption Conference to discuss the issue of looted antiquities and conflict financing. They joined the panel “Looted Antiquities and Conflict Financing” hosted by the Docket, an Initiative by the Clooney Foundation for Justice. In 2020, The Docket launched a multi-country investigation tracking the smuggling of antiquities from Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen into European markets and the United States. It released the results of this investigation in a report this summer.

Moderated by Shaunagh Connaire, Communications Director at the Clooney Foundation for Justice, the panel featured Davis and Arose alongside Antonia David, Legal Program Manager at the Docket, Layla Hashemi, Researcher and Data Analyst at the Terrorism Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, and Mike Loughnane, President of Loughnane Associates.

In many jurisdictions around the world, including the United States, the multi-billion dollar art market is not subject to anti-money laundering protections. Davis, Arose, and their fellow panelists emphasized that this comes back to the misconception that cultural racketeering is a white-collar, victimless crime. Policymakers are beginning to realize the urgency of tackling this illicit trade, but a lack of global policy has pushed the burden of action onto the art community.

“We have been expecting archaeologists, conservators, preservationists to combat trafficking, money laundering, tax evasion, sanctions evasion,” said Davis. “These are completely different languages.”

The panelists concluded the conversation with three key takeaways for attendees:

  1. International governments need to close loopholes in the art market regulation that allow for corruption, sanctions evasions, and financial crimes to effectively mitigate the illicit antiquities trade.
  2. Public institutions, including museums, need to be held accountable for their complacency and participation within the illicit trade. These institutions can play a vital role in advocating for legal practices in the global art market and influencing private collectors.
  3. Anti-corruption and transparency organizations have a role in the fight against cultural racketeering as this illicit trade not only compromises bad actors but ethical collectors and consumers.

The Antiquities Coalition thanks the IACC for hosting this important conversation and looks forward to collaborating with global anti-corruption experts to protect and preserve our shared history, human rights, national economies, and global security.

Council on Foreign Relations Debriefs COP27, ASEAN, and G20 Summits

The illicit trade of art and antiquities is no longer a niche issue. Global leaders in government, law enforcement, museums, and more recognize that significant action must be taken to end cultural racketeering and safeguard our shared history for future generations.

In 2022, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Cambodia, and the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in Indonesia shined a light on this crime. These summits introduced and reinforced the threat of the illicit antiquities trade to a larger audience and presented solutions for mitigating the issue. Each initiative also introduced a declaration broadly mentioning plans to combat the illicit trade in art and artifacts and/or preserve and protect cultural heritage.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) held a Diplomacy Debrief on November 21, 2022, to dive deeper into takeaways from each of these events and some of the most pressing international issues.

Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition and Term Member of the CFR, had the opportunity to ask these experts about the role that cultural diplomacy—like that seen at this year’s COP270, G20, and ASEAN meetings—plays in wider foreign diplomacy.

Miles Kahler, Senior Fellow for Global Governance at CFR and a professor at the American University School of International Service, answered that antiquities have been part of illicit financial flows as a result of globalization, and this is a big issue facing museums and other cultural institutions around the world. Kahler also shared the role of the G20 is to signal to governments that cultural racketeering is an important issue on the international agenda.

Zoe Liu, Fellow for International Political Economy at CFR, spoke about China’s perspective on the illicit antiquities trade, as Chinese politicians and scholars have been interested in receiving stolen Chinese statues from the British Museum as the country builds major museums. Liu emphasized that cultural diplomacy is an important aspect of bilateral relations between the United States and China.

The CFR previously discussed the issue of cultural racketeering during an episode of its “Why It Matters” Podcast. Davis joined Dr. Amr Al Azm, Professor of History and Anthropology at Shawnee State University, and host Gabrielle Sierra to explore cultural heritage during war, antiquities looting and trafficking, terrorist financing, and more.

Read the full transcript of the event here.

Think Tank: What Role Should Cultural Heritage Professionals and Organizations Play in Monument Removal?

Latest Policy Brief Outlines Best Practices Based on Lessons Learned from Museum Deaccessioning

From the United States, to Senegal, to Ukraine, communities are increasingly reevaluating the legacy of public monuments, especially those erected during prior regimes. This is a complex process, requiring consideration and input from a wide range of stakeholders. However, in many cases, heritage organizations have not yet taken an organized role to support citizens and their governments in navigating these difficult waters. 

In the Antiquities Coalition’s newest policy brief, Kate Harrell and Damian Koropeckyj call on cultural heritage professionals to play an active part in this ongoing conversation, given the field’s wealth of knowledge regarding the care, conservation, documentation relocation, storage, and removal of cultural property. They also argue that should a community decide to remove a monument, this action should be considered a form of “community deaccessioning,” analogous to deaccessioning within the museum space, and thus guided by written policies and best practices. The authors provide a series of recommendations to support heritage professionals in developing such principles based on what has worked in the museum context.    

“Moving forward together as an international community of experts in heritage is particularly important in the face of issues as fraught as monumental removal” Harrell and Koropeckyj write. “The policy recommendations that follow should be considered a call for action for both heritage workers and their executive organizational bodies.”

This is the twelfth policy brief published by the Antiquities Coalition Tank, which works to bring high-quality, innovative, and results-oriented research to the world’s decision makers. The institution seeks to foster debate and discussion on the most pressing challenges facing cultural heritage today, whether the illicit antiquities trade, armed conflict, or climate change. It was honored in 2018 as one of the world’s “Best New Think Tanks” by the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Global Go To Think Tank Index.

For a summary and link to the policy brief, click here. 

AC Chair Deborah Lehr Attends COP27, Highlighting the Connection Between Heritage and Climate

Cultural racketeering is a critical threat to our shared past, but the international community must also take urgent action against another rising danger: Climate change is devastating not only communities across the world, but also their cultural heritage, and risks wiping away this irreplaceable history for future generations.

In certain instances, climate change leads to the looting of artifacts. Some of Mongolia’s nomadic herders were forced to turn to alternative sources of income once the environment was no longer suited for grazing and they suffered a loss of income. The country has been a victim of cultural racketeering for decades and has implemented laws to protect and preserve its heritage, but these alone can’t stop climate change from intervening.

Deborah Lehr, Chair and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, joined international experts in climate, government, and more for the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, to discuss global efforts to confront the climate crisis and how cultural heritage professionals play a role. 

As part of the Climate Heritage Network, the Antiquities Coalition recognizes that climate change is a top global threat to all aspects of our world. Lehr was honored to engage with other members in sessions about cultural heritage-based climate solutions and cultural extinction. These sessions featured Ministers of Culture from Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates alongside other government officials, highlighting the critical role policymakers play in establishing climate-conscious standards.

During Solutions Day at COP27, the Climate Heritage Network presented the “The Sharm El-Sheikh Declaration on Culture-based Climate Action.” The statement was endorsed by all participants of the Ministerial session and seeks to enhance culture-based solutions to climate awareness. It builds on commitments made in the Paris Agreement, the Rome Declaration adopted at the 2021 G20 Summit, and the Naples Declaration from this year’s Conference of the Ministers of Culture of the Mediterranean.

The declaration follows the Climate Heritage Network’s “Climate Heritage Manifesto,” inviting civil society, cultural organizations, and other stakeholders to signal our joint ambition to fight the climate crisis. 

The Antiquities Coalition is a proud signatory of the Manifesto and commends the Climate Heritage Network for its efforts to raise awareness of the connection between cultural protection and preservation and climate change and looks forward to participating in future conversations about the issue.

Learn more about how climate change impacts cultural heritage from the AC’s Think Tank:

ASEAN Releases Ministerial Statement on Cultural Property Protection

Ministers Responsible for Culture and Art Build Further on ASEAN’s Commitment to Combat the Illicit Trade in Cultural Property

On November 28, the ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Culture and Arts released a Ministerial Statement on Cultural Property Protection, following their meeting which took place on October 27, 2022. 

The strong statement recognized that the illicit trade is a serious transnational crime threatening Southeast Asia’s rich heritage and harming local communities. It also noted that safeguarding cultural heritage and building a responsible market are goals pursuant to ASEAN’s broader goals of maintaining and enhancing peace, security, and stability, and committed to collaboration through twelve specific initiatives, including: 

ADVANCE a long-term, regional strategy that addresses the root causes of the illicit trade in cultural property; 

ENCOURAGE all Member States to consider expanding the possibility to ratify or implement the relevant regional and international agreements related to the protection of cultural property against looting, illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership, while exploring how to best fill the gaps in this legal and regulatory framework in accordance with their respective national laws and regulations; 

EXPLORE the possibility of forming an ASEAN working group/cross-sectoral initiative to coordinate a regional response, with the goal of developing a sustainable, multi-year action plan that tackles the illicit trade from all angles; 

This statement builds on a roadmap released following an international conference held in September, “The Prevention of the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Properties: An ASEAN Perspective.” The conference, organized by the Royal Government of Cambodia in collaboration with the Antiquities Coalition convened ASEAN Member States, key partner countries, law enforcement, museums, and private sector representatives in Siem Reap, gateway to the temples of Angkor. This four-day program included an international plenum open to the public and press, closed-door meetings of ASEAN Member States to strengthen collaboration at the working level, and expert panels and site visits to share lessons.

Read the full statement here

Learn more about the conference and roadmap here.

A History of Afghanistan in 100 Objects: Q&A with Alejandro Gallego López

Described as the “crossroads of cultures,” Afghanistan is home to a wealth of cultural heritage hailing from the Near East, Central Asia, South Asia, and more. Like many other nations, the country has also suffered consequences to its history as a result of global conflicts. 

Decades of war from the ongoing Soviet invasion devastated the National Museum of Afghanistan, the most important repository of heritage in the country. Research estimates 70% of the objects from the museum were looted and 90% of registration records were destroyed.

The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is committed to preserving and protecting the cultural heritage in Afghanistan. Their work is supported by major grants from the US Department of State through the American Embassy in Kabul and aims to rebuild the National Museum, develop a geospatial database of all detectable archaeological sites, support infrastructure projects, and raise awareness for the National Museum among high school students in Afghanistan.

Alejandro Gallego López, OI’s Program Field Director in Afghanistan, collaborates with other heritage experts to carry out these projects and to protect precious, culturally significant artifacts from destruction or theft. 

Additionally, López along with Dr. Gil Stein and M. Fahim Rahimi published A History of Afghanistan in 100 Objects which details some of Afghanistan’s most culturally significant artifacts from prominent historical time periods. The book is free to download or read online.

The Antiquities Coalition interviewed López about his recent publication and work with the OI.

AC Executive Director Tess Davis Featured as November’s AIA Virtual Lecturer

The Archaeological Institute of America is the oldest and largest organization in North America focused on archaeology, and the Antiquities Coalition has been proud to partner with the AIA since our founding. The AC’s Chair Deborah Lehr, an AIA General Trustee from 2013-2019, joined by Peter Herdrich, who served as an AIA Board Member and later CEO, created the Antiquities Coalition to fight back against cultural racketeering.

This November, Executive Director Tess Davis, who started her career at the AIA, was featured as the Virtual Lecturer of the Month. She presented two talks: Blood Antiquities: Tomb Raiders, Art Smugglers, and the Black Market in Cultural Treasures and The Wild, Wild East: Combating the Black Market in Ancient Asian Art

Davis stressed the important role of archaeologists in raising awareness that antiquities trafficking is not a harmless crime. If you are a member of the AIA or an archaeologist interested in joining the fight to combat looting: 

  1. Raise awareness about illicit trafficking and its harms to your community, students, and colleagues. 
  2. Demand accountability from leading institutions when they exhibit stolen antiquities. 
  3. During AIA letter writing campaigns, share your experience to help the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) with deliberations that will help safeguard archaeological sites and objects.

And, follow the Antiquities Coalition on social media for the latest news, free resources, and calls to action. 

Watch Davis’s lectures for free here and here.