The looting of art and cultural artifacts is as old as war itself—but these crimes have taken on new dimensions in the modern era. Regions destabilized by conflict are easy targets for looters and traffickers, and the profits are often directed toward sustaining conflict. Once established, trafficking networks can continue to rob a country of its cultural heritage long after war has ended. In this episode, two experts examine the recent history of conflict-driven looting, and the efforts underway to root it out.
“Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed,” National Geographic
“How Cambodia’s temples fell to looters,” Deutsche Welle
“Dutch museums take initiative to repatriate colonial-era artifacts,” The Art Newspaper
“Illegal trade in antiquities: a scourge that has gone on for millennia too long,” The Conversation
“Targeting Cultural Sites in War Is Illegal. It’s Also Barbaric.,” New York Times
“7 Cultural Sites Damaged or Destroyed by War,” HISTORY
Watch or Listen
Video Interview: “The Scourge of Looting: Trafficking Antiquities, from Temple to Museum,” Boston University
Podcast: “The Monuments Men and preserving art during war,” Art Matters
Documentary: “Looted art in the Third Reich,” Deutsche Welle
Podcast: “Where Are The Thousands of Nazi-Looted Musical Instruments?,” Morning Edition
Hey everyone! Heads up that this is the last episode of our second season. We’re taking a break to work on new episodes for Season 3 and will be returning in the fall. So stay tuned, stay safe, and thanks for listening!
In times of war, art and culture may seem relatively unimportant. And this means they usually get overlooked - until it’s too late. But throughout history, conflict has led to the looting and destruction of art and heritage sites. And in many cases, looted objects are used to fund ongoing bloodshed. The repercussions can continue for decades after the conflict itself has ended.
My name is Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters. Today, how does art become a casualty, and a weapon, of war?
So can you tell me what cultural heritage is and why it's important?
Well, cultural heritage is essentially what represents the shared common history that a group of people might have. And it can be something very specific, as pertaining to a single group of people, a country, a region, or it could be a worldwide issue.
My name is Amr Al-Azm. I'm a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio.
Cultural artifacts are part of your heritage. So if we're thinking of past cultural heritage, you're thinking of the remains left by ancient peoples, civilizations, etc. And these can be archaeological sites, archaeological monuments, and also artifacts left behind, and an artifact can be something as simple as a stone tool, a sickle, a mortar and pestle that's used to produce food to something extremely elaborate and intricate and very, very beautiful.
So how big of a problem is the looting of art and cultural heritage, of cultural artifacts.
Looting is a huge problem. But it's also important to point out right away that it's not a new problem. It's a problem as old as human history itself.
As long as we have had tombs, we've had tomb raiders. As long as there have been civilizations, you know, there's been an army waiting on the next hill to come in and plunder them. We've seen throughout history that culture has always been a weapon of war.
Hi, I'm Tess Davis, and I'm executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, a not-for-profit organization in Washington.
It starts in places like war-torn Cambodia, war-torn Cyprus, war-torn Iraq or Yemen or Libya, the list goes on and on. And this is funding conflict, it is funding terrorism, and it's certainly funding crime around the world which is why everyone should care about it, regardless of whether they're interested in culture or the arts or preservation.
One problem that everyone has faced who's working in this area, is that so many view this as a white-collar, victimless crime, and that's if they view it as a crime at all. But that's not the case. It might end up a white collar crime at the end, but it doesn't start that way. And these are cultural objects. And they really run the gamut from those that are looted from archaeological sites or stolen from museums or other collections in war zones and then trafficked by armed groups either to finance the hostilities, or sometimes by individuals to exploit them for personal gain.
From the perspective of an archaeologist, of a historian, you know, when an artifact is removed from its context, we lose priceless history that we're never going to get back again. Many of these are sacred objects that were never meant to be bought and sold. They are pieces that were, you know, hacked off of a Hindu temple or a Buddhist shrine. They're not meant to be commodities. And many of these sacred places, they're still sacred places. And when an object is taken from them, it's as if it's destroyed, because you know, that villager in that village they're never going to see it again. And, you know, it matters a great deal to these communities.
When an artifact is improperly removed from its resting place, the damage can’t be undone. The losses are devastating. So what’s driving the looting?
You know, areas like the Middle East are extremely rich in cultural heritage; every Syrian lives either on top of an archaeological site, right next door to an archaeological site, or within a stone's throw of an archaeological site. Now you put stress, you put a conflict, you put a situation where people lose their livelihoods, and they will turn to looting. And so, much in fact of the looting that we see today in conflict countries like Syria, like Libya, like Yemen, is very much associated with what we refer to as subsistence looting. People will turn to loot in order to survive to make ends meet to try and find an additional source of income. And, certainly there is a long established history as well of criminal elements, mafias, gangs, or corrupt officials in many of these countries, you know. So, you find that added factor in, making looting lucrative but also highly destructive as we see when it's completely uncontrolled.
War leads to lost livelihoods, and pushes people to steal and sell items to get by. But throughout history, looting has also happened on a much larger scale. Not just the plundering of archaeological sites - but the outright theft of art from individuals.
One of the most infamous cases was perpetrated by the Nazis - who plundered hundreds of thousands of paintings, sculptures, books and religious objects during World War II - as much as 20 percent of all the art in Europe. The looting was carried out with ruthless organizational efficiency, and many of the objects are still being tracked down today.
In response to this theft, a group was formed to save and document art during the war. You may have heard of these guys, called the Monuments Men, because of a Hollywood flick.
Monuments Men movie clip: “You can wipe out a generation of people, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still come back. But if you destroy their achievements and their history, then it’s like they never existed.”
The theft also led to the creation of the 1954 Hague Convention protecting cultural property. It established the first rules safeguarding locations and items of cultural importance in the event of armed conflict. This same convention made it a war crime to intentionally target cultural property.
And yet, while these international frameworks are essential - looting continues to happen every day, and art and artifacts remain backburner issues when the world turns its attention to conflict.
I frequently get asked, with regards to say, a place like Iraq or Yemen today, that now is facing COVID on top of civil war and other epidemics, disaster after disaster. Is it disrespectful to even work on this issue when they're dealing with so many other problems? And what they've told us is that’s when it matters more than ever, we want to have this culture to pass on to our children. When everything else is threatened most, that's when this matters most.
For years now Tess has focused her attention on Cambodia, where she has worked with the Royal Government to preserve and protect cultural artifacts.
The case of Cambodia, is very important because what we're seeing today in Iraq and Syria and Yemen, it happened before. And as we see it, you know, a generation ago the global hotspot, it wasn't Mesopotamia, it wasn’t Iraq and Syria, it was Indochina, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and in Cambodia, which is celebrated now for its Temple of Angkor Wat, which frequently shows up on the must-visit list you'll see from Travelocity and places like that. In 1970, war erupted between the government and the Khmer Rouge, and that led to decades of civil war, of genocide, of foreign occupation that ended really only with the 1998 death of Pol Pot. And by the time this was all over, a quarter of the population’s lives had been lost to starvation, to disease, and to outright murder. And like we're seeing today in the Middle East, in North Africa, the Civil War, it triggered an organized industrial trade in antiquities. And the purpose of that was to bankroll further violence and the conflict, it was intimately connected. And this, this trafficking went hand in hand, as we're also seeing today in the Middle East, in North Africa, with the deliberate and systematic destruction of targeted groups and their heritage. You know, there's this real connection between plunder and destruction, which, you know, it blurs the scene a little bit, but they go hand in hand, whether you're talking about World War Two, whether you're talking about the Cambodian Civil War, and whether you're talking about, you know, ISIS in Iraq today.
PBS News Hour 00:00: When it comes to the battle against the Islamic State, much of the world's attention is focused, of course, on the murders and the mayhem it has wrought. But there have also been a series of attacks on antiquities and cultural heritage.” https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/latest-attack-antiquities-islamic-state-aims-shock
CBS News 00:39 Several options here but I think use, “This video appears to show … and shatter the priceless relics” https://youtu.be/i1pGJPMp9fY?t=39
CNN 00:00 “more than three thousand years of history, obliterated in seconds” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmrPxy-K7W4
What roles do terrorist organizations play in this process?
ISIS as a good example of how this sort of happens. The looting had already started in Syria from as early as 2012 and so when ISIS eventually emerges at the end of 2013, and into 2014, it emerges onto an already existing situation as far as looting is concerned. They first and foremost take over the trade and institutionalize it. They start off by first saying to people, okay, you can continue looting but you have to pay a 20% tax on anything that you sell. They also started to issue looting licenses to individuals. So we would go to the local ISIS Emir who controls an area and you say, hey, look, I want to loot the site, and the Emir will give you a permit. And then you go and start digging. But very soon, I think ISIS realizes that this is a very profitable venture, and they start to get increasingly involved themselves; they start to hire their own crews, they start to bring in heavy digging equipment. And they start to also host these auctions and one of the biggest and most important was in Raqqa, and they set up an entire department as part of the Office of Mineral Wealth and Resources. So they institutionalized the looting of cultural heritage because it was financially profitable for them.
But ISIS didn’t only see these treasures as a source of income. They also used archeological sites for other purposes, turning them into shields during conflict and ultimately as a means of showcasing their power to the world.
They saw cultural heritage as a resource on many different levels. So, for example, when the International Coalition started to do airstrikes on ISIS, after 2015, ISIS started to use important cultural heritage sites in Syria and Iraq, to put their ammunition dumps, they use them as training camps for their, you know, goods. I have seen pictures collected by some of our activists who worked with us in Syria by siting oil refineries, on archaeological sites. And of course, the most, you know, horrific form of exploitation of cultural heritage, we see from late 2015 onwards, and this is demonstrated by what I refer [to] as a cultural atrocities. This is when ISIS started to go into museums and smashing the contents of these museums or going into major archaeological sites and smashing the contents and culminating in the now iconic image of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra being blown up and all of the these are pre-prepared, they're videoed, and there's usually some sort of narrative that goes with them. And they are often released to coincide with specific moments that they decide. So they’re using these actions, these cultural atrocities as a form of propaganda. And demonstrating to its own narrow group of followers, look, we are powerful. And so you can see that cultural heritage here is being exploited on many levels.
ISIS, whatever you may say about them they were very good businessmen. You know, it went from a ragtag group of fighters to the richest terror organization in history, and how did they do that? They did it through criminal enterprises, through a mix of extortion, you know, ransom and robbery and looting, and unfortunately, found a willing market. Something else that has changed with this conflict in comparison with those past I mean, even if you're looking at the Iraq invasion in 2003, someone on the Iraqi border can now through Facebook, through WhatsApp, sell directly to a buyer in rural Indiana and you know, FedEx a piece there, and have it there in a matter of days where it used to involve this quite complicated system of dealers and middleman and transport. You know, that too, has changed completely, and so criminals have been taking advantage of this technology. And I think law enforcement themselves would say that they're having a hard time keeping up.
I mean, social media has transformed the landscape here. And we see an explosion from 2013 onwards, as Facebook becomes more popular in the Middle East region, and particularly in areas like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, all these conflict zones as well, it becomes the great equalizer because suddenly, you could be just an average person with zero or no connections, you get on Facebook, you find you just post your your wares online and millions of people can see it.
Social media gives everyone a voice, but that connectivity usually has a dark side too. In the case of looted art, social platforms are often the first step in the laundering process that allows pieces to make their way to the mainstream art market. More on this after the break.
How does a looted object eventually show up for sale on a legal art market?
I should say one of the many difficulties of fighting this illicit trade is that unlike drugs, unlike guns, cultural objects aren't automatically illicit. You can't tell by looking at something if it's illegal or not. It depends on the history, and, in fact, for this reason, if you look at the research, the scholarship that's being done on this increasingly criminologists are comparing it more to laundering. That these things aren't just being trafficked, they're being laundered onto the legitimate market. The art market is the largest unregulated legal market in the world. You can buy a car for hundreds or thousands of dollars and you get a VIN number, you get an ownership history, you get all of these things, but you buy a $500 million painting and you don't know the name of the person who's selling it. In how many industries does that happen? And I think it's been able to continue like that, again, because of this mistaken concept that art crime is a white collar, victimless crime, and certainly there's aspects of that, but again, there's very serious reasons for governments to care about this.
And one case with which I was very honored to work was an antiquity from Cambodia, a masterpiece, that was looted in the chaos leading up to the Killing Fields. It was broken into pieces, smuggled across the border to Thailand by insurgents, most likely the Khmer Rouge, and then it was slowly laundered onto the European art market, given a false history and then, you know, shows up for sale on the cover of a catalog for one of the most prominent auction houses in the world.
Yeah, missing its feet which remain chopped off at the ankles behind at the site. Luckily, that piece has been returned home, but most are not. Most that disappear into the black market sadly disappear forever.
Just this summer an auction house sale of two Nigerian artifacts led to a public outcry after an article claimed the sculptures were likely stolen from Nigeria in the late 1960s during its civil war.
And it isn’t just the auction houses or museums that are guilty of these sales and acquisitions. Take the crafts store Hobby Lobby, which was forced to forfeit more than 5,500 ancient tablets and seals after it was found that they were illegally smuggled artifacts from Iraq.
These crimes, unfortunately, are common, and often go undetected or unresolved.
So what international laws are there when it comes to cultural heritage and war?
The legal framework for this really only developed in recent decades. The main international law is a treaty from 1970, the 1970 UNESCO Convention, but also, national law plays a very strong role.
This 1970 convention was created by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO. At its core, the agreement sets out to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural property of all kinds. But the designation of cultural property is left to each individual state, so the rules can be quite different depending on where you are.
And the laws around this are very complicated because they vary from country to country. In the U.S., they vary from state to state, and because of that, it's quite a challenge for countries to recover and get these pieces back. For every headline you see of a piece going back to Egypt or to Italy or to Cambodia, those are by far the exceptions, not the rule. Even in the United States, which has some of the more favorable laws to claimants in the world, it's quite the uphill battle.
When you were telling the story, and you were like, yeah, and then the piece appeared on the cover of, you know, a very prominent art house, you know, auction house, like, isn't that the moment where you were like, the jig is up, we found it. How does that work?
You would think right? And if only it were that easy, but unfortunately, the way these trials are done, the way these cases are done in the United States, and there's a similar framework in place in the United Kingdom, is they're prosecuted under stolen property laws. The law that's used here in the U.S., the National Stolen Property Act, it has nothing to do with cultural heritage. So lawyers have been very creative in applying these laws, but to use the example of the piece from Cambodia, and this is true for most of these cases that are done in the U.S. and both the UK, the government had to show that first, there was a law in place in Cambodia that claimed ownership of the statue. Second, they had to show that the statue was from Cambodia's current borders. And third, you also have to show that the piece was removed after the law went into place. And when a looter is the first person to see a statue coming out of the ground, it's rather hard to show from which side it was taken and when. And you walk through many museums, and you do have to ask yourself, how did these pieces get here? In many cases it's not behavior that we would condone today.
What about the targeting of cultural heritage during wartime? Do those rules, sort of, intersect with these other issues?
As I mentioned, you know, plunder and destruction, they often go hand in hand. And the connection between cultural destruction and genocide is a very clear one. In fact, the man who was the mastermind behind the Genocide Convention had actually felt very strongly that cultural destruction be included as a definition requirement of genocide. And if you think about it, that makes sense. I mean, if you're going to destroy a people, you have to destroy everything that made them great too. You don't want these reminders of wonderful things that they did. And likewise, if you're willing to destroy everything that's sacred to a people, the next step is to destroy the people themselves. There's a very, very dark connection there. And again, we see this with the Nazis, we see this with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia who targeted Cham mosques, Catholic churches, and contemporary Buddhist temples. And it's something we have definitely seen particularly by Daesh, by ISIS, throughout the Middle East and North Africa today.
The history of these injustices is long - but people do push back. It’s a tough job, and it often falls to individuals and local activists, many of whom risk their lives to protect cultural heritage. One of those people is Amr, who in 2014 helped organize support for activists to protect mosaics in the war-torn city of Ma`arat, Syria.
The museum in Ma`arat contains the largest and most important collection of mosaics from the UNESCO designated world heritage sites of the Dead Cities, so there's a unique and extremely important collection of mosaics stored and displayed in that Museum, and it was totally exposed. We use very simple techniques such as just literally covering the walls of the mosaics with cloth and then putting sandbags against it. This proved to be an extremely effective way to protect the museum because a few months after that, the museum was hit by a Syrian regime airstrike. It caused extensive damage to the courtyard, but the mosaics inside the museum were protected from the blast because of the sandbags we had put on it. This museum has since been hit two more times as well. And in every time that the museum was hit the contents were always protected. And we've done that in other museums as well. The other thing we do, we also do, is we send out site monitors. These are local volunteers, local activists again who go out and essentially try to document looting activities and, you know, any damage or destruction that might occur to a cultural heritage site, you know, we have teams out in Idlib that go out on a regular basis and putting their lives in danger here.
What can a vulnerable country do to make itself more resilient to looting? And what can the rest of the world do?
Criminologists will tell you that no illicit trade in history has ever been defeated at its source. It just doesn't happen, it is a problem of demand. And right now, the United States is the largest art market in the world we’re the source of that demand, both licit and illicit. So really, it takes action by countries like the United States, places like Europe, to stop that demand, these sites were intact, in some cases for millennia, until there was a market for the material in them, and then they were destroyed in a matter of years.
So spreading the word about how these things are stolen and laundered, helps.
It helps. In fact, I think it's the most important thing that can be done. It is hugely important that buyers beware. And there certainly is a legitimate market. But the art market, you know, it's a market that's very easy for criminals to take advantage of, because of the lack of regulation because of this long-standing culture of secrecy. And so it really is on buyers, on the sellers, to do their homework to do the so-called due diligence and to make sure that what they're purchasing is not the product of crime or conflict or terrorism.
It's hard listening to you because I love museums and it's really unsettling to me to feel like objects I've looked at a museum or sought out in other countries at museums, I mean, they just have so much blood and crime in their history. But, how do you know which museum is the right one, where it's supposed to be?
I do think museums have come a long way in recent years. When reports started emerging of the looting and trafficking that was happening in ISIS-occupied territory, museums were sounding the alarm to help fight back against that illicit trade. It's a very different reaction than we saw during the Cambodian Civil War when, you know, I've talked to curators who were at some quite prominent museums at the time who said Cambodian pieces were coming in in the 1970s with dirt and leaves still stuck on them. So, things have come a long way. That said, we do still see museums, including those here in the United States, you know, getting caught with pieces that were looted, in some cases recently looted. One prominent Museum in New York recently had to return a gold sarcophagus to Egypt that was looted during the Revolution. This isn't a piece that came out decades ago. So this is still very much a problem. That said, again, museums can really be a force for good in this if they want to.
The question inevitably becomes, where do artifacts belong? Somewhere safe from a conflict zone far away? Somewhere where everyone can see it? Or do they belong at home, to the culture and country that they come from?
Cultural heritage is a key part of identity. This is the cultural property, to use the legal term, of these communities of these countries. And those who remove it, they're thieves, pure and simple. And unfortunately, in many cases, they're also war profiteers. And so, yes, I do think that it's up to the country to decide what happens to its cultural heritage. That said, they're understandably quite proud of their cultural heritage. They want people to see their antiquities in museums around the world. They just want it to be in a responsible way, and there are ways to achieve that. You know, why do Western museums need to own these? The focus shouldn't be on ownership. The focus should be on working with countries around the world to secure loans, so these pieces can be seen in a responsible way. And that is something we're seeing starting to happen as well.
Do you feel that the coverage of these kinds of lootings or destruction isn't as obvious to people because when we talk about war, we focus on lost lives. And that sometimes talking about, you know, a piece at a museum could almost seem, not frivolous, but you know, not have as much weight to people?
You know, we do face a binary, especially, where you have horrific conflicts, ongoing conflicts, and me being a Syrian, I've been asked before, in the face of such a terrible humanitarian catastrophe, why are you so worried? Why are you focused on cultural heritage? I reject this binary. I think you can do both. And I would go a step further and say this, a conflict like Syria has to end one day. And when it does, Syrians are going to have to get together. And they're going to have to try to find what common denominators exist between them, what makes a Syrian a Syrian. Syrian society, as a result of this conflict, has ruptured across every possible cleavage, you know, social, sectarian, economic, religious. What bridges are left, that they can communicate across? And I think this is where shared common history, this is where their cultural heritage can play a vital role in that. It could be a connecting point, it could be something that brings people together. And if you think of the museums and the cultural heritage sites, these could become safe spaces, a space where Syrians, can come together, meet in an environment where it doesn't matter who you were, what side you fought on, it connects you to the other side. So, I see cultural heritage and the preservation of cultural heritage, not just as saving Syria’s past in this case, but it's also a key to its future too. Without that past shared heritage, there is going to be no future Syria, because it's the only thing left that holds the society together.
Want to learn more about art and cultural heritage in conflict? Head to CFR.org/WhyItMatters for the show notes from this episode.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria, and he also composed the track you are hearing right now.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help with this episode was provided by the amazing Teagan Judd. This was also the final episode with our summer intern Wynne Dieffenbach, who did some incredible work and who will be missed.
Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra, signing off. See you soon!