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.