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Crimes against history: Inside the multibillion-dollar world of stolen antiquities

From colonial armies to ISIS fighters, antiquities theft has a long history. Now there’s a push to get them back to the countries they came from.

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Antiquities Overview

A terrorist group plunders an ancient town in the Middle East and hands off precious relics to a middleman. The middleman moves the work out of the country. Before long, the piece is in the hands of a Western dealer, en route to a collector’s home. The collector gets his piece of antiquity, the middleman gets his cut, and the terrorists add more money to their coffers.

In another time, the town might have been “discovered” by a European explorer who helped himself to its treasures. They would end up, nicely lit and preserved in a glass box, in a Western museum.

At the heart of both stories are irreplaceable pieces of a people’s history, transported around the world by different forces that are now under growing scrutiny, as the museum world and law enforcement pay closer attention to the same questions: Who owns these works? How to retrieve and return the treasures? And — in the modern, criminal version — how to curtail the illicit traffic?

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on museums and individual collectors to correct the historical wrongs — to examine the provenance of their treasures, and if that provenance is in question, to return them to their rightful owners.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Tess Davis, the executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, a nonprofit that campaigns against the illegal antiquities trade, told Grid. “I think the pressure [to return objects] will only increase. It seems like every month there are new champions that are stepping forward in this area. It is something that has gone out of archaeological conferences or museum boardrooms and is regularly making the front page.”

Talk of restitutions is “definitely in the air,” Vishakha Desai, a veteran museum leader, told Grid. She said public pressure from prosecutors and cultural leaders alike means that museum boards and leaders can no longer ignore the conversation about correcting historical wrongs.

“It is a moment that is really changing the field radically,” Sarah Parcak, a professor of archaeology at the University of Alabama, told Grid. “It’s pushing us to ask really uncomfortable questions about where things have come from and what purpose they are serving.”

Antiquities Thesis


Looted art has sat on the shelves of Western museums, and in the homes of wealthy collectors, for centuries. Today, the trade in antiquities is one of the biggest criminal enterprises on Earth; but there’s also a global reckoning underway as museums and collectors consider the provenance of their treasures. And increasingly — whether for moral reasons or because of public or legal pressure — they are returning these ancient works to their rightful owners.

Law Enforcement Lens

Tracking the traffickers

“They’ve been behind some of the biggest stories concerning this issue in recent years,” Terry Garcia, a former executive vice president and chief science and exploration officer at the National Geographic Society, told Grid.

By 2017 — not long after ISIS and other terrorist groups were first reported to have looted and trafficked antiquities to fund their operations — Bogdanos convinced his superiors in the Manhattan DA’s office to greenlight a special unit to go after the traffickers and track the stolen art.

Not everyone shares that view. As several experts told Grid, there is clearly no shortage of people who have no problem owning stolen antiquities; where there are smugglers, there are buyers.

“A lot of [antiquities bought and sold in the West] is stolen, it’s looted,” Parcak told Grid, talking about the vast market for ancient objects. Too often, she said, “we don’t know where the objects are coming from, where they are going.”

The pandemic has been a boon to traffickers, some of whom thrived as the world shut down. Interpol says that in 2020, illicit excavations at ancient sites spiraled around the world — up almost a third in Africa, compared with 2019. In the Americas, the figure was up 187 percent. Asia and the South Pacific was the unfortunate regional leader — as most people retreated indoors, the unlawful digs ballooned by a staggering 3,812 percent in 2020.

Terrorism Lens

When ISIS fighters become antiquities dealers

Experts say the focus on the antiquities trade has sharpened as a clear line is drawn from stolen treasures to funding for terrorism.

“When ISIS was enjoying its heyday, in addition to spending time destroying objects, they were also using many of the objects they acquired to finance their operations,” Garcia told Grid. “They were selling them on the international markets.”

The terrorists, Garcia pointed out, have borrowed a page from longtime smugglers and organized crime groups.

“Antiquities are just part of a larger criminal network that transports illicit goods,” he explained. “If you can convert it into cash, it gets into this network. So whether it is antiquities or endangered animal parts, guns, drugs, humans — it’s a commodity for criminals.”

Technology Lens

A double-edged sword

Technology has helped fuel the trade — and also helped those trying to end it.

“It’s certainly a double-edged sword,” Davis, from the Antiquities Coalition, told Grid. For the thief, there’s greater ease of transport and transaction. “It’s no longer the case that a looter has to get a piece to the border and has to find someone to get it to a Manhattan gallery.”

Those trading in ancient artifacts can simply go online — and some, said Davis, have even ended up at the Antiquities Coalition itself. “We’re constantly approached by looters and traffickers through our Facebook page. People misread what we do and think we’re dealers and offer to sell us objects basically directly from the site.”

On the flip side, satellite imagery and other modern technologies have helped those tracking the trade, offering new ways to view normally hard-to-access sites and watch crimes as they unfold.

Here the standout example again is Syria, where, in the midst of the civil war, satellite images helped researchers gather evidence of the widespread looting by ISIS at heritage sites, as well as by the Assad regime and other groups.

“Now, we have this information in real time,” Davis said. Not long ago, such cases of widespread looting were far more difficult to track.

“We were only able to piece together the story of the blood antiquities from Cambodia decades after the fact,” she added. “Now there are satellite images of ISIS looting from Syria that anyone can see from a computer. That has been a very valuable tool so governments, and also the art market, can take immediate action. There is no excuse for groups to not act today.”

“The impact that looting, that stealing or destroying artifacts has on the sense of culture of the people of country of origin — you’re doing more than just stealing an object,” Garcia said. “You’re stealing a piece of them.”

Culture Lens

Doing the right thing

But how to convince individual collectors and global institutions of that argument? Must there be lawsuits and prosecutions to convince museums and collectors to return illegally gotten antiquities? To do the right thing?

Within the museum community, experts say, it is essential to continue raising public pressure and awareness, both about the provenance of valuable collections housed in the West and the cultural importance of returning them to their countries of origin.

“There’s more of a spotlight, therefore more museums are actually trying to look at the provenance questions much, much more carefully,” Desai, a past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors who is now at Columbia University, told Grid.

The report, Desai said, has led to action beyond France’s borders.

British soldiers stole the treasures from what was then the kingdom of Benin, now southern Nigeria, in 1897. Numbering in the thousands, the loot — known collectively as the Benin Bronzes — wound up in museums throughout the Western world.

The Parthenon — or Elgin — Marbles ended up in London after being stripped from the Parthenon on the orders of Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in the early 1800s, when Athens was under Ottoman rule. Greece has repeatedly called for their return, on the fundamental grounds that their removal was illegal. The opposing argument: Elgin had the permission of the Ottoman authorities, who held sway over the Parthenon at the time.

That no longer holds, the Times said. “The museum and the British government, supported by The Times, have resisted the pressure [to return the objects to Greece],” the paper said. “But times and circumstances change. The sculptures belong in Athens. They should now return.”

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which houses several Benin Bronzes in its collection, is facing similar pressure — again, driven by a leading newspaper.

Returning these treasures isn’t always straightforward. It’s not always clear to whom they should be delivered, and sometimes the art doesn’t belong to the museum in question. Most of the Benin Bronzes in Boston, for example, are owned by a private collector, not the museum itself.

Still, the Globe wrote, the onus is on the museum to work on a global solution for all the objects. “The British stole the Bronzes 124 years ago,” it said. “It’s long past time for justice.”

Antiquities conclusion

It is why prosecutors and curators, advocates and archaeologists — all will tell you that much more needs to be done. Recent successes, though headline-grabbing, haven’t resulted in a global rush to return objects. The list of stolen and looted antiquities that sit in the West dwarfs examples of restitutions.

Ultimately, Desai told Grid, Western institutions aren’t likely to “close out their collections,” but “people will have to send some things back. Politically that is going to be necessary as a gesture. Then there will be some negotiations, to see what you can keep.”

Added Parcak: “People are realizing, with more social media, more awareness, the importance of Indigenous voices and perspectives, and ownership of culture. Unlike a decade ago, or even five years ago, people understand that objects belong where they came from.”

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