The demand for antiquities and other cultural property sold through online retailers and social media has skyrocketed since 2015—the sales volume is estimated to reach $9.58 billion in 2020, according to a 2017 policy brief published by the Antiquities Coalition, a U.S.-based think tank that campaigns against cultural racketeering. Unfortunately, this rapid growth also translates into increasing online sales of illicitly exported, stolen, or forged cultural objects. In fact, the majority of objects offered for sale on the Internet carry no authentic documentation, according to a 2018 UNESCO report.
Virtual galleries and online auctions—through sites like eBay, Trocadero, and LiveAuctioneers, to name a few—provide platforms for both businesses and private individuals to sell and purchase antiquities in a quick but also potentially dubious manner. In most cases, online sales not only lack secure documentation of either provenance (an antiquity’s prior legal ownership history) or provenience (its “findspot” in an archaeological excavation), but also offer vendors the ability to conceal their identities and quickly disappear.
The structure of the online antiquities trade and increasing demand is likely also driving industrial-scale looting of archaeological sites, particularly in conflict zones. Buyers interested in owning a piece of history may risk purchasing objects that support organized criminals or are part of terrorist financing activities. In May 2015, the U.S. military raided an ISIS compound in Syria and found information outlining the terror group’s potential involvement in the excavation and trade of antiquities. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as Skype and WhatsApp have allegedly been used to trade antiquities and close deals.
Following the arrest of the Aboutaam Brothers in 2017, authorities gathered further evidence of ISIS-looted antiquities entering Western art markets in 2018. On March 28, Spanish authorities arrested Jaume Bagot Peix and Oriol Carreras Palomar—known experts and dealers in ancient art—on suspicion of illicit antiquities trafficking and knowingly financing terrorist activities. According to Spanish authorities, Bagot and Carreras led a network that illegally acquired antiquities originating from archaeological sites looted by ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups, before selling the artefacts in their gallery in Barcelona. They also hired foreign intermediaries to acquire and ship the antiquities via third countries to conceal their origin and avoid alerting authorities. The network began operating in late-2014, but didn’t attract attention until October 2016 due to fraudulent import records. During a police raid in 2018, Spanish authorities seized numerous artefacts originating from the northern regions of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania in Libya, particularly from sites in Apolonia and Cyrene that had been raided by ISIS affiliates. Some artefacts showed imperfections that indicated a violent extraction without the use of adequate archaeological techniques.
Antiquities Coalition chair Deborah Lehr said that “[i]f confirmed, [this] will be a smoking gun that ‘blood antiquities’ are reaching the international art market…” and probably affirms the necessity of a recent, and controversial, legislative proposal in the European Union (EU).
The U.N. Security Council has already passed resolution 2347 (2017), addressing this very issue. In paragraph 17, the resolution outlines a range of measures on how governments and private sector stakeholders should reorganize the antiquities sector to harden it against the misuse by terrorism financers. In 2018, the EU emphasized the need to counter illegitimate art trafficking believed to encourage organized crime, money laundering, and terrorist financing. In fact, “the illicit market in works of art can be as profitable as for drugs, weapons or counterfeit goods,” said Corrado Catesi, Interpol’s Works of Art Unit coordinator.
Indeed, the EU reached a provisional interinstitutional agreement in December 2018 aimed at preventing the illicit import of cultural goods from non-EU countries. The legislative proposal introduces a broader definition of at-risk cultural goods for importation, implements a comprehensive licensing system, requires importers to exercise a higher degree of due diligence, and grants custom authorities more power. The European Parliament adopted the agreement on first reading with 590 votes on March 12, 2019. Its final adoption by the Council is pending.
International art dealers and their associations alleged that false assumptions triggered this prospective EU legislation and similar proposals in the United States. The Committee for Cultural Policy (CCP), a U.S. non-profit organization whose aim is to strengthen the public dialogue on arts policy, criticized the lack of clear evidence and quantifiable data to back the assumption that terrorist organizations finance their activities through illegal sales of art and antiquities. CCP disputed the existence of an actual market for these looted antiquities, labeling them “virtually unsellable.” CPP also doubted the feasibility and logistics outlined in the current EU proposal.
The art industry can be expected to lobby against legislation that they feel burdens them with administrative obligations and costs. But despite all speculation, the undeniable profitability of illicit antiquities trafficking has drawn the attention of ISIS and other terrorist groups—particularly when antiquities are within geographical reach—and has led to large-scale and organized looting activities in ISIS-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. And while it may not be their most lucrative endeavor, strong indicators point to it generating meaningful income, which contributes to the organization’s survival.