The Pandora Papers: AC’s Tess Davis Featured in the Guardian

Offshore loot: how notorious dealer used trusts to hoard Khmer treasures

The actions of the late Douglas Latchford – notorious antiquities trafficker and dealer – have been exposed once again in the media coverage of the Pandora Papers. 

Purchasing sculptures he is alleged to have known were looted from ancient Cambodian sites through organized criminal groups, Latchford made a living of millions by trafficking and selling the Khmer art to western buyers. With help from the US government, Cambodia is now seeking the return of the antiquities to their rightful homes.

As his daughter inherited a collection of 125 antiquities from Cambodia’s Khmer period, she had agreed to repatriate the statues, sculptures, and figurines tied to her father’s crimes.

Leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in the beginning of October, the Pandora Papers expose the use of trusts and offshore tax havens to pass antiquities and other assets to his daughter, thus circumventing being held accountable and paying inheritance taxes in the UK. 

Many of these antiquities have landed in the homes of wealthy art collectors, world-renowned auction houses, and even great museums.

People unfamiliar with the dirty trade in sacred antiquities might assume that Latchford’s 2019 indictment rang an alarm worldwide, and every organisation and person holding Khmer treasures that might have come from him will have inspected their provenance. In general, however, that has not happened. Tess Davis, the executive director of the Washington-based Antiquities Coalition, who has extensively researched Douglas Latchford and Cambodian looting networks, says that with a few exceptions, the response of museums worldwide has been “deafening silence”.

Read the full article here >>


AC Cited in Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project

“In short, it was a conspiracy of the willing.”

As news broke that art dealer Nancy Weiner plead guilty to knowingly selling looted and trafficked artifacts, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project picked up the Antiquities Coalition’s news in the world of combatting cultural racketeering. Involved with other dealers such as Douglas Latchford and Subhash Kapoor, Weiner stated that in the antiquities trade, a lack of provenance has become the norm.

The owner of a swanky Manhattan art gallery, who sold ancient artefacts to major auction houses like Christies and Sotheby’s, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to knowingly have dealt in stolen goods, the anti-antiquities trafficking NGO Antiquities Coalition announced.

Weiner had been a long-standing client of Latchford’s, the late notorious antiquities dealer who was recently implicated in the Pandora Papers. Many of the goods that have passed through the hands of the likes of these dealers still stand in world-renowned museums such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the hope for the repatriation thereof lies, unfortunately, far along on the horizon.

Read the full article here.


Complicit in Corruption: How the Art World Meets International Crime in the Realm of Cultural Piracy

To white collar criminals, crimes rooted in corruption often seem “victimless” in a privileged world of loose rules and gray markets. Contrary to this belief, such crimes pose grave dangers to U.S. national security; namely, the corrupt practices within the art market. According to Foreign Policy, art dealers are similarly complicit in providing “secret channels for hostile regimes and their cronies to launder corruption proceeds” through murky markets, thus ultimately skirting around sanctions and undermining U.S. national security interests. Josh Rudolph of FP highlights the similarities between 10 different kinds of white collar criminals in his analysis of How Art Dealers, Real Estate Agents, and Hedge Funds Enable Corruption. The common theme across each corrupt actor and crony? The lack of legal framework makes their connections to money – and each other – very difficult to trace.

The Antiquities Coalition’s work to combat the mass corruption perpetuated by white collar crime in the art and antiquities trade emphasizes the need to trace theft, trafficking, and illicit sales around the world. While the U.S. Treasury has a well-developed anti-money laundering statutory framework, the legal guidelines have yet to be extended to the art market, thus enabling these gray markets. To give a sense of the extent of the global scale of the problem, as well as to commend the successful seizures of these stolen objects by authorities worldwide, the Antiquities Coalition updated the an interactive database of seized antiquities sourced from the MENA region, titled “Cultural Piracy: Mapping Antiquities Seizures Around the Globe” in September of 2021. The map plots 270 seizures of a total of 230,357 individual objects found in illicit contexts since 2014. 

The scale of the problem points out the clear vulnerability in the U.S. financial system that allows for large-scale money laundering to take place, seeing as the majority of offshore financial services are provided by the United States, says Rudolph. In fact, the United States is one of the few countries that fails to comply with the international standard on regulating money laundering. This is not just a weakness in the system, but a top national security concern. The U.S. government has recognized this threat, and must continue to urgently prioritize the regulation white collar criminal industry  in order to stop the perpetuation of corruption in its tracks. 

View the Antiquities Coalition’s map of global antiquities seizures and learn more about the threat posed by cultural piracy by clicking here. 


The Pandora Papers: AC Quoted in ICIJ’s Expose

On October 3, 2021, The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published a groundbreaking investigation of millions of leaked documents that revealed stunning financial secrets and offshore dealings of world leaders, politicians, and billionaires from around the globe, better known as the Pandora Papers.

One of the actors targeted in the expose is Douglas Latchford, the notorious antiquities trafficker indicted in 2019 for dealing in stolen art and artifacts. This investigation uncovers how Latchford and his family set up trusts in tax havens shortly after he was linked to looted antiquities, and used trusts and offshore accounts to store antiquities.

The expose is a must-read, deeply reported investigation that destroys so much of the false narrative that glorifies Douglas Latchford and the antiquities trade. The loopholes exposed threaten not just nations such as Cambodia, or even our world heritage, but the responsible market and the global financial system.

As the Pandora Papers reveal the extent of the harm committed by Latchford, museums should investigate the origins of artifacts with ties to the indicted criminal, says the reporting team.

The team also drew from an art blog called “Chasing Aphrodite” published by investigative journalist Jason Felch who had already located a number of Latchford-owned pieces in museums. They also consulted with art experts Angela Chiu, a scholar of Asian art and Tess Davis, a lawyer, archaeologist and the executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, an organization that campaigns against the trafficking of cultural artifacts.

Read more on how this team of investigative journalists tracked Cambodian antiquities to leading museums and private galleries from ICIJ here.

The 76th Session of UNGA: “Building resilience through hope—to recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainability, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people, and revitalize the United Nations”

As the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly has concluded, the Antiquities Coalition looks back at the UNGA’s leadership in the fight against cultural racketeering. 


Protecting Culture Under Threat

At the 70th Session held in 2015, a main topic of discussion for the attending heads of state was how to combat the growing strength of violent extremist groups in the Middle East. To that end, key experts and stakeholders from the cultural and security sectors came together under UN auspices to seek innovative solutions to halt the trafficking of “blood antiquities.” 

Soon after, the UN partnered with Interpol to launch a global initiative, titled ‘Protecting Cultural Heritage–An Imperative for Humanity’ to boost protection of cultural heritage targeted by terrorists and traffickers. Leaders from the Middle East, the UN Security Council, UNODC, UNESCO, and Interpol came together to inaugurate this task force under a shared mission, stated by Mireille Ballestrazzi, President of Interpol: “to combine our efforts and resources to efficiently curb this criminal phenomenon and protect the world’s cultural heritage for future generations.”

Simultaneously, the Antiquities Coalition built upon the momentum of the UNGA’s declarations. Through a solutions-oriented forum with the Foreign Ministers of Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Australia, as well as senior delegations from Cambodia, Italy, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand, the Antiquities Coalition brought together policymakers and leading experts to develop and implement targeted recommendations for halting this black trade. Our subsequent launch of the Culture Under Threat Task Force was met with overwhelming support and went on to publish a joint task force report that  put forward 31 specific recommendations to address the ongoing crisis of cultural racketeering.

At a 2016 General Assembly meeting, The United Nations Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, issued an urgent call to step up international action against the destruction of cultural heritage. The human rights expert told the UN General Assembly that the impacts of cultural heritage destruction is felt broadly, citing numerous examples of the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage having a grave impact on people. The Antiquities Coalition also released its recommendations for the US government through the Culture Under Threat Task Force, in collaboration with the Middle East Institute and Asia Society in April of 2016.

In 2017, UNIDROIT Secretary General José Angelo Estrella-Faria utilized the high level convening of featured speakers from Cyprus, the Council of Europe, INTERPOL, UNIDROIT, UNESCO, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to outline efforts to encourage UN member states to ratify the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention.

In 2018, The General Assembly adopted — without a vote — a draft resolution, “Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin” (document A/73/L.54). When introducing the draft resolution, the Greece representative affirmed, “The international community shares a common responsibility to protect cultural property.”

At the 2019 meeting,  President Donald J. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — joined by UN Secretary-General António Guterres —  highlighted threats to the world’s religions and launched an international campaign to fight back, pledging $25 million to safeguard religious freedom, sites, and relics.

Putting Culture Center Stage

The UNGA has helped turn a spotlight on the links between violent extremism and cultural racketeering, as well as on the important organizations and individuals working to combat looting.

Beginning in 2017, on the margins of the UNGA,  the Global Hope Coalition began hosting an annual awards ceremony in service of its mission of identifying heroes against violent extremism and amplifying their work. 

Also at the 2018 conference, speakers explicitly linked illicit trafficking and terrorism, warning that the past few decades were characterized by an increase in the illicit trafficking of such artifacts. If unchecked, subsequent conflict in the Middle East would lead to unprecedented destruction, looting and theft.  

In 2019, the Italian Carabinieri Department for Protection of Cultural Heritage was honored as a Global Hope Hero for combating the illicit trade of cultural property and protecting cultural heritage in conflict and disaster zones. 

Prioritizing Cultural Heritage Protection

The antiquities trade has seen the General Assembly increasingly prioritize the protection of cultural property in response to the prevalence of the issue of cultural racketeering at both national and international levels. Recognition and participation from high level state leaders emphasizes the importance of the work being done to combat looting and trafficking, and encourages stakeholders to delve more deeply into this fight. The Antiquities Coalition commends the United Nations General Assembly’s sustained commitment to combating the threats the illicit trade of blood antiquities poses to cultural heritage and vulnerable communities. 

AC Story Map Follows Court Decision on Claims of the Guennol Stargazer as its Case, Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s Inc. et al, Reaches a Conclusive Judgement

Traversing the globe from its Anatolian origins in the 3rd millennium BCE to its current state in 21st century New York, the Guennol Stargazer has recently experienced a tumultuous legal history having found itself in the middle of a court case involving the Republic of Turkey and Christie’s, a world-renowned auction house. Purchased by Michael Steinhardt in 1993 and sold by Christie’s for nearly $13 million in 2017, the Stargazer was claimed to have been stolen from the Republic of Turkey in violation of the 1906 patrimony law, as asserted by the Consul General of the nation. Though the legal battle was scheduled to proceed to a bench trial on April 27, 2020, the trial was postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As of September 7, 2021, the court has reached a decision.

The Guennol Stargazer is one of just fifteen similar figures in existence. Though it had been on display and exhibited for decades, Turkey did not allege that it had been looted and smuggled from Turkey, nor file claims on the figure, until its high-profile sale at Christie’s in 2017. This case has garnered significant public attention, calling for a narrative explanation of its history. The Antiquities Coalition has released and updated a story map to signify the fate of the famed Guennol Stargazer.

This is not the first occasion of Michael Steinhardt having been involved in controversial art deals – even so, the ruling led to the return of the Stargazer to Steinhardt’s possession. Based on Judge Nathan’s most recent judgement, inconclusive evidence of the Stargazer’s history prior to the 20th century has resulted in the court siding with the defendant.

However, the recognition of a 1906 decree made under the Ottoman Empire in the public court system shows promise for future cases of legal claims on looted antiquities. The court significantly ruled that if Turkey could have proven the presence of the famed antiquity in 20th century Turkey, a ruling could have been made in the country’s favor. Cases with more conclusive evidence may thus succeed in their attempts to have antiquities returned to Turkey.

To learn more about the legal outcome of the claims on the Guennol Stargazer and the legal impacts of Republic of Turkey v. Christie’s, Inc., view the Antiquities Coalition’s full story map here.

Antiquities Coalition Re-releases Updated “Cultural Piracy: Mapping Antiquities Seizures Around the Globe”

Following the return of 17,000 looted antiquities to Iraq, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet has been repatriated as of September 23. 

WASHINGTON, DC (September 23, 2021) — Following a rise in internal conflict and the 2003 US incursion in Iraq, looting and trafficking of art and antiquities in Iraq skyrocketed. However, after nearly two decades of labor, the Antiquities Coalition celebrates the successful repatriation of nearly 17,000 artifacts to their rightful home. 

The Iraqi culture minister Hassan Nazim called the restitution “unprecedented” and “the largest return of antiquities to Iraq.” Among the artifacts, most of which are 4000 year old Sumerian objects, was a rare tablet in cuneiform script, inscribed with a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, here. The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet has officially been repatriated to Iraq as of today, September 23, marking an exceptional restitution that will allow for a deeper cultivation of connections between Iraq’s people and the nation’s history. 

The scale of theft and racketeering evidenced by this momentous repatriation is not an isolated incident. To give a sense of the extent of the global scale of the problem, as well as to commend the successful seizures of these stolen objects by authorities worldwide, the Antiquities Coalition has updated this comprehensive map: “Cultural Piracy: Mapping Antiquities Seizures Around the Globe”

Nearly $65 Million in Illicit Artifacts Seized Since 2014 From the Middle East and North Africa

The Antiquities Coalition has reviewed recent publicly available reports of art and antiquities seizures to update “Cultural Piracy: Mapping Antiquity Seizures Around the Globe.” This tool provides a geographic representation of the illicit antiquities trade stemming from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by plotting reported cultural property seizures since 2014. These news reports are from English, Arabic, and Turkish-language media sources. In total, the map plots 270 seizures and 230,357 individual objects.

Key Findings:

  • Total reported value of $63,934,933.
  • Actual value likely much higher given that just 10% of objects had reported values.
  • Highest valued seizure is $13 million worth of manuscripts and statues from Iraq.
  • The United States accounts for the majority of seizures, with France, Germany, and Spain following.

“The Antiquities Coalition hopes that this map will help underline the patterns in the illicit trade and further reinforce international collaborations to curb it,” says Deborah Lehr, Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition. “Clearly, there are locations in which commendable efforts are succeeding in thwarting this trade.” Nevertheless, there is an obvious need for intergovernmental cooperation: illicit trade is a cross-border issue that requires a multinational response.

To explore this interactive map, click here.


AC Executive Director Tess Davis Discusses Impact of COVID-19, Web Marketplaces and the Antiquities Coalition on the Art World in New Art Scoping Podcast Episode

Art historian and museum leader Maxwell L. Anderson released Episode 38 of his Art Scoping podcast, dedicated to spotlighting the thoughts and efforts of art world leaders, on December 5. The latest episode’s protagonist was our very own Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition.

Davis discussed a wide swath of topics with Anderson, focusing particularly on recent Antiquities Coalition efforts and the tenuous, evolving nature of the art world at large.

Key takeaways include: 

    • The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced crushing blows and increased volatility to the art world: Stay-at-home orders around the globe left many cultural sites with little to no security protections for several months, rendering them “sitting ducks for criminals,” Davis said, referring to the number of lockdown-facilitated crimes compiled by reports the Antiquities Coalition released in May and August. The shuttering of brick-and-mortar establishments has also inflicted “unprecedented” losses and layoffs, leading experts to anticipate that a significant portion of museums and art businesses will fail to survive the pandemic. In addition, pandemic-related financial unrest has led the art market to become increasingly volatile, with museums selling off their works for “hard cash,” investors leaving the stock market in favor of tangible assets (such as cultural property), and collectors taking out loans from auction houses by using their own collections as collateral. “It’s really a critical time, and whether bad actors profit at the expense of legitimate businesses — it’s going to hinge on how we all respond to this,” Davis said.
    • Online antiquities sales, already on the rise before the pandemic, have exploded in the era of COVID-19: Davis cited “archaeological watchdogs,” such as the ATHAR Project, in pointing out a growing trend of posts in Facebook groups dedicated to the trade in pillaged cultural material. “It has been encouraging to see Facebook taking action against this — [but] the words that they’ve made, the statements they’ve made, the policies they’ve made… we’re going to have to see this backed up by action.” Davis said, referencing Facebook’s June 23 announcement that it would begin to delete any content “that attempts to buy, sell or trade in historical artifacts” on Facebook or Instagram. On a positive note, Davis added that because the pandemic has complicated airline travel so greatly, experts are expecting that more smugglers will have to resort to selling antiquities online and shipping them via postal services. “Hopefully these adaptations will make it easier for law enforcement to track and to catch these criminals,” Davis said.
    • In light of increased online traction for antiquities sales, The Antiquities Coalition has created a list of “Ten Most Wanted Antiquities”: “What we’re hoping to do is to raise awareness of some of the more infamous cases of ancient art and artifacts that are missing — that have disappeared into the black market, or disappeared otherwise — in the hopes that some of these are out there, somewhere. And so we’ve highlighted pieces from around the world, representing a number of different cultures, that, again, have disappeared… and our hope is that someone will see this and help to bring these pieces home,” Davis explained.

To listen to the full podcast, click here.

“This Is Not Over,” AC Executive Director Tess Davis Tells the Telegraph Following Death of Disgraced Art Dealer

Douglas Latchford, a now notorious antiquities trafficker, died at the age of 89 on August 2 in Bangkok, his family told The Art Newspaper. Once renowned as an expert in ancient Cambodian art, as well as a trusted dealer, his legacy has since been soured by a U.S. federal indictment unsealed at the end of November 2019, alleging that Latchford had spent decades trafficking looted artifacts into the West through fraudulent means. Latchford’s death will make it far more difficult for investigators to track down his own personal collection—goods that rightfully belong to the people of Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries.

“His collection is still out there, somewhere, and it remains the stolen property of the Cambodian people,” Antiquities Coalition Executive Director Tess Davis told reporters with the Telegraph, who on August 15 published a story about the art community’s calls for the repatriation of artifacts sold by Latchford. “Possession of stolen property is a crime—a continuing crime. This is not over.”

“Now, from Cambodia, to Hong Kong, to Bangkok, there are many people out there who have much valuable information,” Davis added. “I hope they do the right thing and come forward.”

Read the full story from the Telegraph here.