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

October 8, 2021

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.