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Raiders of the Lost Art

Illustrations by Kennice Pan ’23, an Illustration major at RISD

Stories of valiant archeologists who discover and expropriate ancient and powerful artifacts out of dangerous locales have long captured public imagination. Be it Indiana Jones or Laura Croft, the heroes often encounter violent insurgent groups that seek to gain profit or supernatural powers from the artifact in question—a representation that could not be further from reality. These depictions glamorize the illicit trade in antiquities—a practice that routinely benefits from bloody conflict and cultural erasure—ignoring altogether the darker, more insidious side of the trade.

Conflict antiquities—cultural heritage items used to finance insurgencies, war, and global terrorism—are consumed by local, regional, and global markets within the underbelly of the art and antiquities trade. Media coverage surrounding such artifacts disproportionately emphasizes the destruction of heritage and history, from the Islamic State’s iconoclasm of historical sites to the more recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although these instances draw public attention and outrage, they are but the most recent consequences of a greater systemic issue. In fact, conflict antiquities make up only a small portion of the black market’s pernicious profits. The vast majority of the illicit antiquities trade operates in a subtler legal gray area, driven by the clandestine forces of supply and demand.

Since the 1970s, cultural heritage has been disappearing at a rapidly increasing rate, with historical objects funneled from their original settings into collections across the world in a perverse form of global commerce. Beyond the Middle East and Ukraine, artifact looting is a growing issue in regions like India, Southeast Asia, China, Latin America, and North and Central Africa—areas relatively rich in heritage sites and poor in manufactured capital. The black market for antiquities has two distinct components: illegal excavations at the beginning of the supply chain and stolen artifacts already in circulation. And the means by which these illicit objects end up in legitimate spaces like museums, private collections, and auction sites? A sophisticated network of global antiquity dealers connecting buyers to artifacts. 

As the key middlemen of the trade, high-class art and antiquities brokers source looted relics behind the facade of genuine archeological work and sell them to public and private collectors alike. The difficulty of marketing and selling classical art and artifacts has created a need for such brokers. Even in well-advertised private auctions for museum-quality goods, 25 percent of the lots typically fail to sell. The black market for cultural heritage is unique: It depends on people who are highly educated in the history of art and architecture, a notoriously insular field that respects and props up the opinions of a few, established authorities. These figures are often the same people that occupy prominent and, more importantly, legal industry positions. 

The difficulty of proving that an advertised antiquity is illegal, combined with the low priority that law enforcement places upon such objects, affords impunity to dealers. Ultimately, the ability of the illicit antiquities market to operate through many of the same avenues as the industry’s legitimate counterpart further necessitates the disruption of the harmful trade. 

Public apathy toward artifact theft and a lack of media attention, particularly in the demand nations of the United States and the United Kingdom, facilitates the power of invisibility. Indeed,  dealers reap the benefits of their low ranking on the political regulatory landscape. Further compounding the issue, these influential intermediaries often establish mutually beneficial relationships with powerful elites, like politicians, that insulate their operations from scrutiny and large-scale regulation. 

As it currently stands, prohibitions on the antiquities trade have been relatively narrow and subsequently ineffective in limiting the scope and prevalence of the trade. Efforts by police and customs officials can occasionally identify and prosecute criminal actors. Just last year, American hedge fund billionaire and prolific art collector Michael Steinhardt agreed to surrender $70 million worth of illicit objects. Each article in the collection was supposedly purchased under the premise of false documentation from dealers. A lengthy global investigation revealed that the artifacts were looted from their source countries and smuggled out by illicit trade networks. Despite multiple previous encounters with law enforcement, however, Steinhardt faces no punitive action aside from a lifetime ban on purchasing relics.

These enforcement actions are time consuming, costly, and often require significant cross-border cooperation by law enforcement agencies—so difficult to organize and execute that they rarely occur. Apart from these high-level sanctions, we are currently left with only low-level self-regulatory initiatives: dealers’ codes of ethics and museum acquisition statements, policies easily rendered null by causal negligence

Thus, more mid-range provisions—in addition to prosecution—are necessary to allow for significant fines and seizures in cases when a dealer or buyer is found to have transacted without having exercised due diligence. These measures would present regulatory alternatives that could circumvent the high standard of proof required to convict dealers criminally. As it stands, such seizures are only possible through cumbersome diplomatic negotiation or lucky cases where a misdescription is noted at customs. Furthermore, the usual mechanism requires source countries—often unable to afford expensive international civil litigation—to overcome the substantial burden of proof to seize an illicit object from a dealer. When stacked against the sway of savvy dealers, this rarely comes to fruition.

The most notable example of an acknowledgement of the difficulty of proof, in relation to prosecutions for dealing in stolen cultural property, is the 2003 UN Iraq Sanctions Order. The order prohibited the import or export of any cultural property illegally removed from Iraq since 1990, completely nullifying the burden of proof required for objects of Iraqi origin. Because the illicit goods in circulation were indistinguishable from the licit, the order served to kill the London market for Iraqi antiquities altogether. In this case, the outcome was, in fact, desirable. But the development of more workable, reliable, and accessible modes of seizure is still necessary to transform the practices of the open antiquities trade at large.  

The influence dealers exercise on the sociocultural fields of art and art history cannot be disregarded. Dealers frequently maintain mutually beneficial relationships with political actors. In recent years, antiquity dealers of New York City and London have organized and elected interest group representatives, which utilize lobbying power to dismantle regulation or prohibition attempts by archaeologists and other academics. One such group, the American Council on Cultural Property, was notably directed by Ashton Hawkins, the former executive vice president and counsel to the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A broader approach—one aimed at undermining the subversive system of trust among illicit actors and technologies on which dealers rely—is long overdue.

Mechanisms to grant and revoke licenses specific to antiquity dealers, which are currently absent on the global stage, should be crafted in ways that allow for greater transparency in stock held and dealing activity. The revocation of an illicit dealer’s license would deny the dealer the right to do business in the region in question. Until these regulatory policies are enacted, networks of dealers will likely continue to rely on esoteric models of trust to exploit the neocolonial values of a largely unregulated system. Licensing systems would address much of the current legal ambiguity, shifting the enforcement mechanism from routine oversight and regulatory letter-writing to desistance, enforcing suspension, and revocation. 

We must conceptualize the illicit antiquities trade as—with respect to political power, secrecy, and ethics—in line with high-end, white-collar, corporate, and even state crime. In doing so, the discussion about regulation can move past calls for the same costly and ineffectual international litigation. Evidence-based solutions, such as dealer licensing systems, would make the illicit antiquity trade more visible, playing a critical role in deconstructing this longstanding network of high-level theft.