AC’s Deborah Lehr Highlights Need for International Efforts to Support Ukraine’s Heritage in The Hill

When countries experience conflict, one of the many tragedies includes the destruction of cultural heritage as a way to erase the nation’s identity. Today, art and antiquities remain frequent targets for looting during times of crisis.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has been no different, with Ukraine reporting nearly 1,700 instances of likely damage to museums, archives, and libraries as a result of the ongoing war. The treasures damaged by Russian forces are priceless pieces of Ukraine’s history and critical to telling their story.

On June 2, 2023, Deborah Lehr, Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, explored this issue during a panel at the Meridian International Center’s Culturefix, where the need for a collaborative effort to support Ukraine was a key focus. Moderated by Lehr, the panel included Dr. Kateryna Smagliy, First Secretary, Public and Cultural Diplomacy, Embassy of Ukraine to the U.S.; Dr. Richard Kurin, Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large at the Smithsonian Institution; and Irina Bokova, Former Director-General of UNESCO.

In a recent piece, The Hill highlighted the panel’s conversation on the vulnerabilities of cultural heritage in conflict zones and what steps international partners can take to protect our shared history.

Read the full article from The Hill here.

AC Leads Expert Discussion on Efforts Beyond Cultural Heritage Preservation

The illicit trade of cultural property continues to plague our collective history, with many governments, including the United States, warning that it also threatens our global security and economy. American calls for action have been echoed by a wide range of international partners—including groups like the United Nations Security Council, Group of 20, European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and ASEAN.

For too long, we’ve also seen bad actors misuse the art market to launder money, evade sanctions, and hide their illicit antiquities with only the cultural sector actively working to combat them.

On June 5, 2023, the Antiquities Coalition held a roundtable with experts from various backgrounds to discuss how governments, law, civil society, and more can support the culture sector in combating cultural racketeering.

These recommendations focused on actions beyond heritage preservation and emphasized that mitigating the illicit antiquities trade is a shared responsibility. Better archaeology can not solve this problem alone, we need to strengthen law enforcement, international cooperation, and economic integrity. The illicit trade of art and antiquities should not be the burden of the cultural sector alone.

During the roundtable, participants discussed how the fight against cultural racketeering is linked with the broader goals of the United States, including combating transnational crime, protecting legal markets, and building stronger relationships with their allies. They also emphasized how these actions benefit all sectors of society.

The Antiquities Coalition thanks those who participated in the roundtable and looks forward to collaborating with experts across all industries to strengthen legal frameworks and preserve and protect cultural heritage.

Conflict Antiquities: Prosecuting Participants in the Illegal Antiquities Trade

The illegal trade of antiquities is not a victimless crime. Across the globe, the looting of cultural heritage and antiquities is a source of conflict funding for some of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations and criminals. However, these crimes often go unprosecuted and unreported, despite serious humanitarian consequences.

Profits generated from the illegal trade of antiquities are used by terrorist organizations to fund violence, purchase weapons, and recruit and compensate members. Often, even when perpetrators of cultural racketeering are brought to justice, they do not face serious consequences that would deter their involvement in illegal trade. 

The Antiquities Coalition is thrilled to have the support of The Docket, a project of The Clooney Foundation for Justice, whose investigation and report Looted Antiquities: Financing War Crimes and Terrorism makes the case that these perpetrators should be charged with funding of terrorism and war crimes for their involvement in the illegal trade of antiquities. 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. The Docket explores international networks responsible for the looting and smuggling of antiquities from the MENA region, and details how the trade of these stolen artifacts funds war crimes and terrorism, and how these crimes can be prosecuted. 

At a Roundtable Luncheon with the Antiquities Coalition, Anya Neistat, Legal Director of The Docket, joined Deborah Lehr, Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, for a conversation about the findings of the report and next steps that might aid in the global fight against looting. 

Neistat explained that The Docket sought to build a case that there is reason to charge these perpetrators of cultural racketeering for war crimes and funding of terrorism on the grounds that traders are often aware that the sale of their items ultimately benefited terrorist organizations abroad. These charges carry heavier sentences than the typical financial charges that illegal traders may have previously faced and seeks to draw attention to the reality of the illegal antiquity trade as a significant funding source for violent organizations. The Antiquities Coalition supports this new approach. 

It’s important for the public and lawmakers to recognize that cultural racketeering is not a victimless crime of the elite class. Through extensive open-source and field research, The Docket prepared investigative files on individuals and entities involved in the antiquities trade in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and the United States. Additionally, The Docket has established relationships with law enforcement authorities in these countries to trigger the prosecutions of these individuals as accomplices to war crimes and financing of terrorism. 

It’s important that world leaders, as well as the public, understand the stakes and consequences of the illegal antiquities trade and take steps to prosecute perpetrators of these crimes. The Antiquities Coalition thanks The Clooney Foundation for Justice and all participants in our roundtable discussion for their work to end cultural racketeering and uncover strategies to safeguard our shared cultural heritage.

Antiquities Coalition: Metropolitan Museum of Art Should Convene Task Force Against Cultural Racketeering

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York needs to take strong, concrete, and immediate action following reports linking it to an organized trafficking network that smuggled millions of dollars worth of artifacts from areas of unrest in the Middle East.

On June 1, the Art Newspaper broke the story that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg had seized 5 Egyptian treasures worth over $3 million from the Met, alleging they were evidence of the criminal possession of stolen property and conspiracy. The seizure was part of a police probe, now spanning several countries, that first made headlines in 2019. That year, the Manhattan DA’s Office had conducted another major seizure at the museum—of a 2,100 year-old gold coffin worth $4 million, which had been looted from Egypt during the chaos of the Revolution, and then laundered into its collection on forged papers.

These two seizures, of six masterpieces worth $7 million, are just the latest ethical and legal challenge to face the Met, but they may not be the last. The museum is also reviewing at least an additional 45 antiquities that may be stolen property.

The Met is not the only cultural institution caught in the dragnet that led to the Egyptian seizures. In France, Jean-Luc Martinez, a scholar and statesman who headed the Louvre for nearly a decade, is currently under investigation for laundering and fraud, as are a number of his former colleagues and associates. In response to these reports, and in great contrast to the Met, France has urgently convened a new task force to counter cultural racketeering. This group, just announced by Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malik, will be chaired by leaders from the arts, government, and private sector, including Arnaud Oseredczuk, Marie-Christine Labourdette, and Christian Giacomotto. Malik has requested their report by this summer.

It is critical that the Met take steps to regain public trust. The museum is now setting the standard for what not to do on the U.S. art market, when it should be the gold standard for due diligence and transparency. We urge the Met to follow France’s example and put together a task force of distinguished experts to uncover why these ethical and legal lapses happened, and more importantly, ensure they never happen again.

In response to the recent developments, the Met has denied any wrongdoing, instead referring to itself as “a victim of an international criminal organization.” However, in the last decade, even separate from this investigation, the museum has been no stranger to government seizures or repatriations. It has been forced to return millions of dollars worth of stolen art to countries around the world, including not only Egypt, but Cambodia, Italy, Lebanon, Libya, and Nepal.

You can view some of these cultural treasures, along with others recovered from the New York art market, on our interactive timeline here.



Antiquities Coalition: Art World Must Remain Vigilant Against “Blood Antiquities” Threat

Statement Follows Reports Implicating Metropolitan Museum of Art and Former Louvre Director in Trafficking Conspiracy

The Antiquities Coalition commends Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for the seizure of 5 Egyptian masterpieces, worth over €3 million euros / $3.2 million dollars, from New York’s famed Metropolitan Museum of Art (“the Met”). A search warrant alleges the artifacts are evidence demonstrating “the crimes of criminal possession of stolen property” and “conspiracy to commit the same crimes.” The Art Newspaper broke the story on June 1.

The seizure is part of a wider criminal probe, involving police in several countries, that has exposed an international trafficking ring operating out of Egypt and war zones such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen. As part of this investigation, just last week, French authorities reported they are also targeting Jean-Luc Martinez, a French scholar and statesman. Martinez headed the Louvre Museum in Paris for nearly a decade and is currently France’s special ambassador for international cooperation on cultural heritage.

“The Louvre and the Met were the gold standard—tarnished now—of museums around the world,” said Deborah Lehr, Founder and Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition. “Yet even as they spearheaded commendable efforts to fight ISIS’ illicit trade in ‘blood antiquities,’ both failed to keep their institutions from entanglement in a criminal network that smuggled millions of dollars worth of cultural treasures from areas of unrest in the Middle East. This disconnect should serve as a warning. If our foremost museums, with entire departments of lawyers and scholars on staff, cannot ensure their collections are not the products of crime and conflict, then there is a clear and urgent need for stronger legal protections in the art market.”

The Antiquities Coalition has frequently warned that the $65.1 billion dollar art market remains the largest unregulated market in the world. Museums have a unique opportunity—as well as a responsibility—to set the legal and ethical standard for all who operate within this wider market. Many are thankfully meeting this challenge head on, but this week’s news shows there is much more that can be done.

Here are five recommendations that could have a significant impact:

Hire an independent, outside firm to conduct a comprehensive and credible external investigation. The Louvre, Met, and all other museums implicated in this matter are public institutions. The public has a right to know whether they followed not only the letter, but the spirit of the law.

Understand the problem. It is critical to combatting looting and trafficking, recovering stolen works, and ensuring marketplace integrity. The art market and museum community, due both to their unmatched expertise, as well as their unique situation, can help answer questions no others can. There is also a real need to report suspicious activity to relevant authorities when permitted by law.

Launch an awareness campaign. As educational institutions, museums have an unmatched platform to help policymakers, the art market, and the general public better understand the threats from cultural racketeering and how we can fight back together. Through exhibitions, lectures and other programming, they could reach a wide audience.

Strengthening best practices. Many of the ethical guidelines, national laws, and international treaties we rely on to combat the illicit trade are now decades old. It is time to upgrade our strategies, just as criminals have updated theirs, to protect both our cultural heritage and the legitimate art market. Museums should be at the forefront of efforts to do this.

Capacity building. Training in provenance research and authentication, as well as having dedicated museum staff to research acquisitions and object history, can make a significant difference. As this case demonstrates, such steps are also needed to protect institutions not only from unethical behavior, but criminal liability.

State Department Spotlights Importance of Cultural Heritage in Cambodia

Secretary Kerry Takes Key Steps to End Trafficking of Antiquities

Secretary Kerry visits the National Museum in Phnom Penh

The Antiquities Coalition commended Secretary of State John Kerry for highlighting today the US government’s commitment to working with global partners to end the trade of blood antiquities in Cambodia and for underscoring the importance of combating cultural racketeering during his trip this week to Southeast Asia. The organization’s Executive Director played a role in recovering and repatriating stolen art from Cambodia prior to joining the Antiquities Coalition.

“The cooperation agreed to by Secretary Kerry and Prime Minister Hun Sen demonstrates a commitment that the looting and trafficking of ‘blood antiquities’ will not be tolerated,” said Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, who was knighted in 2015 by the Royal Government of Cambodia for her work recovering treasures that Sec. Kerry viewed today.

Deborah Lehr, Chairman and founder of the Antiquities Coalition, said “Secretary Kerry is a leader on the issue of cultural preservation which is critical not only for protecting humanity’s shared heritage, but also for strengthening the foundations of peace and security in countries that depend on their cultural heritage for economic stability and a shared sense of national identity.”

Secretary Kerry met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh today to discuss the importance of building democracy, fighting extremism, and enhancing economic development in the context of the U.S.-Cambodian partnership. As part of this broader effort, both leaders highlighted the importance of cooperation between the U.S. and Cambodia to preserve Cambodia’s rich heritage.

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Executive Director Tess Davis with the original pedestals from two of the statues visited by Kerry.

As Secretary Kerry stated, “In every meeting, I made clear that we are committed […] to building on the progress that we have already made in education, health, cultural preservation.” He added, “I had the privilege of visiting the national cultural museum earlier this morning where artifacts have recently been returned from the United States to Cambodia. And that museum is an extraordinary asset, a goldmine of treasure from the past.”

“Prime Minister Hun Sen has made repatriation of looted Cambodian antiquities a priority of his administration,” said Davis. “Secretary of State Chan Tani has tirelessly lead these investigations and negotiations. With their victories, Cambodia has played David to the international art market’s Goliath.”

The Antiquities Coalition was honored to host His Excellency Chan Tani in May 2014 at a roundtable discussion, along with Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, on how the international community can best support Cambodia’s efforts.

“Cambodia is a model of the good and the bad that happens to a country’s heritage during a time of crisis and instability,” said Deborah Lehr, Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition. “There are many lessons to be learned from their experience as we work to prevent similar destruction and looting in the Middle East.”

Secretary Kerry was photographed admiring a series of 1000-year-old Khmer masterpieces, which the kingdom has recently recovered from the United States in cooperation with the U.S. Government. article-doc-7e2z8-5F8jLoIRwX52fdce4d5a1259f66f-966_634x421Along with countless other antiquities, these treasures were plundered from Khmer Rouge territory during the Cambodian Civil War. They were then trafficked onto the international market, with some eventually landing at top American auction houses and museums. In 2011, the Royal Government of Cambodia launched a campaign to bring its looted antiquities home. They have since recovered major works — one both from Sotheby’s and Christie’s, two from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one each from the Norton Simon and Cleveland museums.  They continue this effort today.

American Bar Association Honors the Blog “Cultural Heritage Lawyer”

The Antiquities Coalition is pleased to congratulate our friend and colleague Rick St. Hilaire, whose blog Cultural Heritage Lawyer has again been selected as one of the American Bar Association’s BLAWG 100!

Blawg100WebBadgeThe ABA Journal grants this honor every year to the very top of legal field’s thousands of blogs. As the magazine “is read by half of the nation’s 1.1 million lawyers,” this recognition brings art and cultural property law to a wide and important audience. St. Hilaire, a 15 year veteran prosecuting attorney and adjunct professor, started the blog in 2010 to report on “cultural property law, heritage trafficking, art crime, and museum risk management.” It now has a wide readership, both in and outside the field, which will only grow with this latest award.

Congrats again to Rick St. Hilaire and Cultural Heritage Lawyer!

Click here to visit Cultural Heritage Lawyer

Click here to visit the full BLAWG 100 List

Antiquities Coalition Appeal to the International Criminal Court

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On Friday, March 6, 2015 — after we learned of the alleged bulldozing of Nimrud by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — the Antiquities Coalition wrote Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), urging her to open an investigation into ISIS’ war crimes against cultural heritage in northern Iraq.
The attack of Nimrud — following others on the Mosul Library, Mosul Museum, and Assyrian ruins of Nineveh — is a grave violation of domestic Iraqi and international law, including the Rome Statute, which established the ICC.  More importantly, judging from history, it also poses a stark warning that ISIS will soon undertake even greater violence against the besieged Iraqi population: The United Nations (UN) clearly recognizes that such “cultural cleansing” is a specific risk factor of impending genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

Read our full letter to Madame Bensouda here.

UPDATE: Read the response from the ICC’s Madame Bensouda here.


Every person on the planet should pause after yesterday’s violent attack on humanity’s heritage and understand ISIS’ intent not only to control the future of humankind but also to erase and rewrite our past.

We must unite with global intention to preserve our common heritage and resist ISIS’ effort to steal

not only our future freedom but also our history, the very roots of our civilization. We need civilizing forces now more than ever and must take steps to protect our priceless historical sites and constrict the terrorists’ ability to profit from sale of plundered relics.

Destruction of Assyrian statues at Mosul Museum
Members of ISIS destroy ancient Assyrian statues at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Photo Credit: ArtNet

We believe the following steps are key:

– Encourage all nations to expeditiously implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199 passed on February 12, 2015 that prohibits trade in cultural property from Iraq and Syria. (The resolution, passed with full U.S. support, directs that action be taken within 120 days.) Given that the American market is one of the largest, the U.S. can help lead the way by quickly closing our borders to illicit trafficking in conflict antiquities.

– End impunity for these crimes against heritage which are documented risk factors of impending genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of war. The International Criminal Court must immediately open an investigation into these severe violations of international law. UNESCO and other organizations have also called upon the ICC to take action.


Fact Sheet: UN Security Council Resolution 2199 on ISIL




Antiquities Coalition Statement on Mosul Museum

Assyrian winged bull statue at the Mosul Museum

Following the events in Mosul last week, the Antiquities Coalition strongly supports the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), and Society for American Archaeology (SAA) Joint Statement on Cultural Destruction in Iraq. We join our partners ASOR and the AIA in condemning all attacks on heritage, but especially those that are used to intimidate populations through a campaign of terror. The ongoing violence by extremist groups such as ISIL and its affiliates demands swift and effective action. We support UNESCO in its recently announced international coalition against cultural racketeering, including its planned strategic summit on security issues like terrorist financing, which will bring together INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and key regional partners in the Middle East. It is time to start exploring solutions to these global threats against our cultural heritage.

See the AIA Joint Statement HERE

Egypt Takes the Lead to Combat Looting

The Antiquities Coalition commends the Egypt government’s leadership in the global fight against cultural racketeering – the systematic looting and trafficking of antiquities by criminal organizations or terrorist networks.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, previously Egyptian Ambassador to the United States – speaking at the Embassy in Washington, DC in 2011.
Photo Credit: The Capitol Archaeological Institute

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was in Washington the week of February 15 to build support for Egypt’s efforts to combat extremists.  In his discussions with the White House and the U.S. State Department, he stressed the importance of cutting off sources of funding to groups such as ISIL and al Qaeda, including from cultural racketeering.  These terrorist organizations, as well as organized criminals, are benefiting from the sale of looted antiquities, including those from treasured archaeological sites in Egypt.

Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Momdouh el Damaty, in partnership with the Egyptian Foreign

Kate Seelye - Senior Vice President of the Middle East Institute, Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh el Damaty, and Deborah Lehr - Chairman, the Antiquities Coalition
(Left to right} Kate Seelye – Senior Vice President of the Middle East Institute, Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh el Damaty, and Deborah Lehr – Chairman, the Antiquities Coalition during recent trip to Cairo, February 2015. Photo Credit: Antiquities Coalition

Ministry, has mobilized their embassies in countries where demand is high for Middle Eastern antiquities. They are actively partnering with auction houses, internet companies and private collectors to stop the sale of looted antiquities. Egyptian artifacts have been seized as far afield as Belgium, Israel, Spain and the United States.  Christies and eBay, for example, have taken steps to ensure they are not sources of illicit antiquities.

In addition, Egypt is convening the countries of the Middle East to develop regional solutions to fight against these terrorist networks. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Antiquities, supported by the Antiquities Coalition and the Middle East Institute, will host a Cairo Summit in May to explore ways to halt terrorist financing though antiquities looting. This Summit will bring together nine countries of the region suffering from cultural racketeering – Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan, and Libya – to join forces in the fight.

The Egyptian government is taking a proactive role in the fight against the cultural racketeers. Ministers Shoukry and el Damaty understand the complexity of the problem and are bringing the resources of two ministries to seek solutions.  Bringing together the combined resources of their government in this fight is an important model that we hope all the invited countries will emulate – as well as cooperating government to government to develop regional solutions that will stop this multi-billion dollar industry from putting money into the pockets of organized criminals, armed insurgents, and terrorists.

Returning Duryodhana

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Returning Duryodhana

By: Tess Davis

Summer 2014

The old woman had lived through many chapters of Cambodian history: the French colonial period, independence, civil war, genocide, the Vietnamese occupation, and finally, peace. She lived happily now, surrounded by children and grandchildren in a wooden house in a rural village five miles from the ruins of Angkor Wat, the vast temple complex built by her ancestors in the 12th century. That’s where my colleagues and I found her, after we left behind the throngs of tourists at the temples and followed
a string of cows home from the rice paddies to her little community. Accustomed to the sight of stray foreigners, she welcomed us without surprise, her head bowed slightly and hands pressed together in the traditional greeting. Then, with the hospitality so often bestowed upon strangers in the coun- tryside, she invited us into her home, insisting that I (the only woman in our trio) take her hammock.

We were three lawyers and researchers, working with the University of Glasgow, hoping to learn from village elders about the great temples and the fate of their magnificent statues.

Ah, yes, she said, the ruins. She knew them well. As a girl, she played there. As an adult, she and her husband worked there with French archaeologists, he caring for the stones and she planting gardens around them. When the civil war came, in 1970, she hid there with her family, hoping the sacred walls would protect them from artillery fire and rampaging armies. They did not. The region fell first, then the entire country was taken by the communist Khmer Rouge. Those who were not immediately purged were moved into the labor camps now known as the Killing Fields. One in four Cambodians died there.

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