Mining History and Undermining Security: The Impact of the Illicit Antiquities Market on War and Security

Conflict is an exceptionally artistic creator. It generates needs, desires, and opportunities to fill those wants through markets that range the spectrum from righteously open and bright to surreptitiously black. The illicit market for antiquities from war-torn Iraq re-emerged in public dialogue this summer with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney’s Office filing a civil complaint against the arts and crafts store chain, Hobby Lobby, Inc.[1] Stipulations of the case settlement included the forfeiture of thousands of artifacts that originated from the area of modern-day Iraq and included a $3 million settlement.[2] Agreeing to adopt internal policies regarding the importation of cultural property, Hobby Lobby will also be required to hire outside counsel on customs and importation laws, as well as submit to quarterly reporting on their acquisitions over the next eighteen months.[3] While the Green family, the devoutly Evangelical owners of the Hobby Lobby store chain, claimed that they were unaware that their 2010 transaction for nearly 5,500 artifacts from the region were anything other than legitimate, Hobby Lobby has accepted responsibility and agreed to correct their course as it applies to future acquisitions of artifacts for their private collections.[4]

Although the civil forfeiture case is a small victory ensuring cultural property remains in legitimate collections through lawful acquisition processes, criminal charges regarding trafficking have not been filed.[5] The subsequent dispersion of a portion of the 2010 shipment through sale and donation also highlights the difficulty customs agents will face in recovering and repatriating items that are no longer in the private holdings of the company. Returning this tiny fraction of Iraq’s cultural history to its people will be a lengthy endeavor, and previous experiences in repatriation to the war-torn nation have demonstrated the largely up-hill struggle of recovering stolen art and artifacts to be an excruciatingly slow process.[6] Civil actions lack the deterring statement of a criminal prosecution when wealthy collectors can purchase their way out of a self-inflicted wound from participation criminal trafficking rings in war zones.   

Iraqi Col. Ali Sabah, commander of the Basra Emergency Battalion, displays ancient artifacts Iraqi Security Forces discovered Dec. 16, 2008, during two raids in northern Basra. (U.S. Army Photo/Wikimedia)

Where conflict, instability, and insecurity exist, illicit markets for desired goods follow. Unimpeded—or even encouraged—by local law enforcement or security forces, the trafficking of cultural property is also a faster, simpler process for private collectors when the means for peacetime physical security of museums, monuments, ancient sites, and collections is focused elsewhere while fighting.[7] Enabled by access to digital markets, expeditious transactions between sellers and collectors avoid customs agents, laws, and public scrutiny.[8] Collectors range the spectrum: some are lavishly wealthy; others are lavishly educated. Many are both, even contributing purchased items to preservation and academic study.[9] Even with the best of intentions, the purchases are still illegal, violating customs laws that are backed by international statute born from conflict.[10] Ultimately, these purchases feed back into the same instability that breeds black markets in arms, drugs, flesh, and the baser human instincts that run under the radar in conflict regions around the world.[11]

The wars in Iraq have flooded the illicit market with a vast treasure of culturally significant material from the Sumerians, Mesopotamians, Christian sects, Assyrians, ancient Jewish settlements, and even ancient and modern Muslim societies. Following Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the United Nations levied sanctions against Iraq, preventing routine surveys and studies at countless historic sites in the heart of Iraq. Historian John Malcolm Russell, author and professor of Art History and Archeology for the Massachusetts College of Art, noted that the “sanctions against Iraq have finally destroyed Sennacherib’s palace, finishing the work of the ancient Medes and Babylonians who sacked Nineveh in 612BC.”[12] With commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the gap in regional security exacerbated the looting situation, leaving previously guarded museums and cultural sites open for theft. By late 2003, the steady flow of antiquities, which began in the late 1990s, became an uncontrollable flood, recognized by UNESCO, INTERPOL, and the International Council of Museums. As coalition forces drew down in the wake of Operation New Dawn, the transition of security left cultural sites open for picking again.[13] Most recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria preserved the illegal antiquities market in an effort to generate revenue.[14] Each time the international community glances briefly away from the security demands in Iraq, illicit trafficking in cultural property finds a seam to exploit.

Hobby Lobby, Iraq, and smuggled ancient cuneiform tablets are a cautionary tale in two common truths: (1) antiquities looting and destruction occurs in conflict, and (2) there is always a demand for cultural material that will feed money back into the criminal network. Where these two truths collide is that exploitable seam that equates conflict with opportunities to buy illegal antiquities. In the wake of the Second World War and with the rise of internationally recognized statutes like the 1954 Hague Convention, including the First and Second Hague Protocols, on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, additional multinational legal frameworks have built an architecture that guides nations in preserving their cultural material, preventing theft, offering restitution to victims, and prosecuting criminals. Participation is voluntary, but the benefits are real: a concrete foundation for a nation to build customs laws and an international forum to guide solutions for looting in war.

The market for looted antiquities from conflict zones is driven by the desire of collectors. If the demand signal was not present, the antiquities market would not generate revenue. The legal acquisitions process exists to protect collectors from purchasing stolen or looted items, and it is backed by internationally recognized legal frameworks. Vitally, legal acquisition of items circumvent freeports, physical storage facilities favored by illicit trade for their lack of import taxes and permissive timelines for long-term secure storage. When private collectors acquire items with dubious provenance- legal ownership history- from shady dealers who move items through international freeports with sketchy documentation, they participate in a cycle of money and violence that perpetuates instability.[15]

A Syrian policeman patrols the ancient city of Palmyra, which lay at the crossroads of several civilizations. Looting has been a problem at many historical sites. (Joseph Eid/AFP)

Looting may be a fact of war, but buying stolen culture does not have to be. Making the purchase of stolen artifacts from war zones financially and publicly painful for collectors is a crucial step in stopping the trade and encouraging legitimate purchases from legitimate dealers, this must include criminal prosecution of those who participate in conflict trafficking. In an era of increasingly interconnected digital commerce, the ability to buy and sell looted items from war zones is easier than ever. Collectors owe it to themselves, the academic communities, the public, and the world to shun the black market trade in antiquities. Most crucially, the United States owes it the world to criminally prosecute those who traffic illegal items and thereby further violence and global instability.

Nikki Dean is a studio artist, historian, and Army officer. Her research focuses on art theft, looting, illicit markets, curation and collections management in war. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Cardo maximus of Roman Apamea, Syria’s largest archaeological site, visited by Mark Antony and Cleopatra, now the victim of numerous illicit digs. (Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia)


[1] Press Release of the Office of the United States Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District for New York, “United States Files Civil Action to Forfeit Thousands of Ancient Iraqi Artifacts Imported by Hobby Lobby,” July 5, 2017, accessed April 13, 2017.

[2] News Release of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “Hobby Lobby settles $3 million civil suit for falsely labeling Cuneiform Tablets,” July, 5, 2017, accessed July 13, 2017.

[3] Ibid, Press Release of the Office of the United States Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District for New York.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Creede Newton, “Hobby Lobby exposes UAE-Israel antiquities trade,” Al Jazeera, July 12, 2017, accessed July, 13, 2017.

[6] Press Release of INTERPOL, “INTERPOL assists recovery of ancient Iraqi statue looted in 2003,” August, 8, 2006, accessed July, 13, 2017.

[7] Peter Andreas, Blue Helmets and Black Markets: The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 8, 11-13, 15, 79, 158-160.

[8] Neil Brody, “The Market in Iraqi Antiquities 1980-2009 and Academic Involvement in the Marketing Process” in S. Manacorda and D. Chappell eds., Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property (New York: Springer), 117-133.

[9] Ibid.

[10] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1483, Article VII, May 22, 2003. Most recently, UNSCR 2199 and 2253 both condemned the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria at the hands of Da’esh (ISIS), but also highlighted the need for strict adherence to legal measures in countering illicit trade of antiquities and cultural material. UNSCR 2553, adopted by the Security Council on December 17, 2015, specifically focused on the relationships between private sector acquisitions and potential for funding organized criminal activities and terrorism. All of these SCRs remain active, to date.

[11] Jessica Dietzler, “On ‘Organized Crime’ in the illicit antiquities trade: moving beyond the definitional debate,” Trends in Organized Crime 16, no. 3 (2013), 331-333, 337-339, accessed July 13, 2017.

[12] John Malcolm Russell, “Stolen Stones: The Modern Sack of Ninevah and Nimrud,” Archaeology, December 30, 1996, accessed July 13, 2017.

[13] “UNESCO Director-General calls for vigilance,” UNESCO, August 2014, accessed July 13, 2017.

[14] Russell D. Howard, et al., IS and Cultural Genocide: Antiquities Trafficking in the Terrorist State (MacDill AFB: Joint Special Operations University Press, 2016), 32-37.

[15] The Economist, “Uber-warehouses for the ultra-rich,” The Economist, accessed July 13, 2017. Antiquities traders frequently use the network of freeports to allow for storage of merchandise without having to pay import duties. Preferably, Swiss freeports enable physical entrance to European soil, without the tax signature, and provides a European-looking provenance. Items can remain in freeports indefinitely