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Putting a Price on the Priceless: Measuring the Illicit Antiquities Trade in Data and Dollars

August 26, 2021

This year, the G20 has prioritized the protection of cultural heritage and the prevention of illicit trafficking, holding a historic Ministerial Meeting in Rome on July 29 and 30. 

As heads of state and government turn a global spotlight on the illicit trade in cultural property, it is more important than ever that policymakers and law enforcement fully understand the problem. But how can we quantify looting, smuggling, and related crimes? What data sources can be used? Is the absence of evidence actually evidence of absence? What harm is caused by cultural racketeering beyond a dollar amount—to the legitimate art market, global security, and human rights? 

Top experts came together to discuss these questions and more during a live webinar on July 26. Co-sponsored by the Antiquities Coalition and George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center (TraCCC), the webinar was attended by more than 150 individuals from around the world.

Speakers including Louise Shelley, Layla Hashemi, Neil Brodie, and Ute Wartenberg covered the direct and indirect effects of the illicit trade in a panel moderated by Patrick Costello. 


Key Takeaways included:

  • Illicit Trade Thrives In Unstable Environments: Looting and trafficking pose major problems to fragile states with a weak peace and security balance. Finding a resolution to such post-conflict situations proves extremely difficult. Hashemi argued that proceeds from illegal antiquities fuel terrorism and conflict and converge with global problems of corruption, drug and weapon trading, and money laundering, all of which pose large financial revenue opportunities for criminals. 
  • Free Ports Are Playground For Illicit Market: With false documentation and forged records, free ports are a breeding ground for antiquities trafficking. Used as large, tax free warehouses for storing art, often with no source or ownership history, such free ports are used as key transit points between the origin of looted antiquities and their entrance into the global market without provenance. 
  • Coin Sales are a Key Element of the Antiquities Market: The scale of coin sales online has grown significantly in recent years and represents a large share of the market sales in both volume and revenue. As Wartenberg noted, the coin market is largely open access. Coin sales were not included in the figures included in the Rand Report title “Tracking and Disrupting the Illicit Antiquities Trade with Open Source Data” although they were discussed.
  • Market Analysis Should Extend to Sites On the ground and On the web: If research is done into the money made from individual on-the-ground archaeological sites as well as digital marketplaces like Etsy, eBay, or Facebook, efforts to find the exact value of the illicit art trade could be more constructive. The democratization of the market and a rise in e-commerce have led to a significant increase in online sales. The consequent flood of information on the market requires the use of advanced data analytics to assess the value of the trade. 
  • More Research Into Illicit Market is Needed: Brodie argued that general research into the market is lacking as a result of deficient funding and a limited pool of fields doing the research. Research should be composed of a variety of methodologies and should be multidisciplinary, including not just archeologists but other fields and sectors. Data analysis of online markets is key in approximating the scale of the trade, the actors involved and the dynamics of the market according to Hashemi.  
  • Data Analysis as the Basis of Policy: Shelley argued that unless we understand the dimensions of the market, the modes of sale, and the key facilitators, we cannot develop effective policies to address the problem of smuggled antiquities.

A full recording of the webinar, Putting a Price on the Priceless, is available here.

Learn more about the panelists’ research on antiquities trafficking and looting in the forthcoming Routledge edited volume Antiquities Smuggling in the Real and Virtual World (January 2022).