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

A visitor views a section of the Parthenon Sculptures exhibit at the British Museum in London on Feb. 13, 2020. (Photo by David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

SOPA Images/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett


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



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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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.

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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?

Today, that traffic is vastoutranked only by the global trade in drugs and illegal weapons. A 2020 Interpol survey based on data from more than 70 countries found that global law enforcement had seized more than 850,000 ancient objects in that year alone — everything from rare coins, paintings and sculptures to archaeological pieces.

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.”

Experts tell Grid that the bottle has been cracked open, so to speak, by several forces: advances in technology to better document and track antiquities, an aggressive push by global law enforcement to prosecute recent cases and investigate the old ones, and greater pressure on Western cultural institutions to belatedly do the right thing. And although examples of restitutions remain rare, this confluence of factors has refocused attention on a long list of stolen treasures — from the Benin Bronzes to the Egyptian bust of Nefertiti to the Elgin Marbles taken from the Parthenon, to name just three of the most prominent examples.

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.”


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

    In the U.S., exhibit A in the law enforcement push has been the work of a small division of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. That division — the Antiquities Trafficking Unit — has gone after individual collectors and some of the world’s most prestigious museums, and seized more than 3,500 items valued at more than $200 million.

    “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.

    Leading the charge in the DA’s office is Matthew Bogdanos, a retired U.S. Marine colonel, who — on leave from prosecuting crimes in New York — spearheaded an effort to recover antiquities from Iraq’s National Museum in the early days of the U.S. invasion. His work in Iraq, which led to the recovery of nearly 10,000 pieces, including the Warka Vase, the world’s oldest carved ritual vessel, earned him the National Humanities Medal in 2005.

    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.

    Among the unit’s recent successes: the seizure from American museums and delivery to Italian authorities of some 200 treasures, reported to be the largest-ever such restitution from the U.S. to Italy, and the high-profile return of objects to India last year, a haul that included a bronze idol of the Hindu god Shiva valued at around $4 million. The entire trove, estimated to be worth $15 million, was recovered following an investigation into a single smuggling operation, allegedly run by a former Manhattan gallery owner, Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor was arrested in Germany by Interpol in 2011, extradited the year after to India, and jailed there on charges of trafficking and smuggling precious antiquities. Over the years, the probe has yielded roughly 3,000 artifacts valued at almost $150 million. A separate case against Kapoor has been brought by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

    On occasion, prosecutors have compelled individuals to return works rather than be drawn into court. A recent investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York uncovered 35 Southeast Asian treasures that had found their way to the U.S. via a British dealer who was indicted on charges related to trafficking stolen antiquities. Among the pieces: a sandstone sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesha, which the Antiquities Coalition lists as one of the world’s top 10 looted and missing artifacts.

    The buyer was James Clark, the investor and Netscape co-founder, and after officials approached him with details of their investigation, Clark agreed to return the pieces. “It’s hard for people to give up something they paid for,” Clark told the New York Times, “but for me, why would you want to own something that was stolen?”

    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.”

    Last year, European authorities published the details of an investigation that turned up some 4,600 valuable archaeological items ransacked from sites in Bulgaria. Eight people were arrested following the probe. Between June and October 2020, against the backdrop of the covid-19 pandemic, law enforcement and customs officials recovered more than 56,000 cultural objects in several European countries, among them thousands of archaeological artifacts and other valuable antiquities.

    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.”

      At the height of the Syrian civil war, experts noticed a flood of antiquities hitting the global gray market; some showed up on Facebook and other social media platforms. Investigators soon learned that ISIS fighters were plundering ancient sites for such treasures — the ancient city of Palmyra in particular — and then enlisting Syrian smugglers to move them out of the country. A Wall Street Journal investigation found there was an ISIS official charged with the job of antiquities trafficking. Similar operations were run from Iraq; in 2017, Hobby Lobby paid a $3 million fine and returned artifacts when confronted with claims that the pieces had been looted and stolen from Iraq.

      A unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution in 2017 warned that terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda were profiting from the looting and smuggling of cultural property — using the spoils to “support their recruitment efforts and to strengthen their operational capability to carry out terrorist attacks.” All told, a 2015 French report estimated that “blood antiquities” may have accounted for as much as 20 percent of ISIS revenues.

      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.”

        And act they must, said Garcia, who has a personal history with antiquities. Garcia received Peru’s highest civilian honor for his role in one of the most significant episodes in the history of such repatriations, helping to return a collection of ancient artifacts taken from Machu Picchu at the turn of the last century. Excavated and brought from the South American country in 1912 by the American explorer and Yale University professor Hiram Bingham, they were housed at Yale’s Peabody Museum for nearly a century, until — following a long and very public dispute that saw Peru take the university to court — the works were finally returned to Peru.

        “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.

          “There’s lots and lots of discussion about the issue” on both sides of the Atlantic, she added, particularly following a 2018 French government-backed report, which recommended that antiquities removed from countries of origin without their consent be returned if those countries ask for them.

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

          Case in point: a museum exhibition that opened in Hamburg at the end of last year. It will close this year with the return of the displayed objects — 179 bronzes, jewelry and ivory pieces — to Nigeria, the place they came from more than a century ago.

          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 Hamburg objects are part of a larger trove of more than 1,000 pieces housed in Germany. Germany’s culture minister called her country’s decision to repatriate the objects a “historic milestone in dealing with the colonial past.”

          Elsewhere in Europe, the Dutch government gave its backing last year to plans for the repatriation of antiquities from its former colonies — following a report that said the Netherlands had to accept that “an injustice was done to the local populations of former colonial territories when cultural objects were taken against their will.” Austrian authorities are setting up a commission of their own to examine the provenance of colonial-era objects in their museums.

          And then this month, the Times of London, long a voice of the English establishment, reversed its long-standing position on perhaps the best-known and most controversial of all looted treasures, the Greek marbles in the British Museum.

          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.

          In December, the Boston Globe called on the museum to help transfer the pieces back to Nigeria. “There is a clear moral imperative here,” the paper’s editorial board said, “many, if not all, of the Bronzes at the MFA are stolen, and they should go back to the rightful party.”

          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.”

          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.”

          • Nikhil Kumar
            Nikhil Kumar

            Deputy Global Editor

            Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.


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