45th Annual Meeting – Luncheon, May 30, “Protecting the World’s Cultural Heritage: Identifying and Protecting Looted Artifacts” by Oya Topçuoglu, L. Burgess, and Dawn Rogala

Looted or stolen artifacts are a concern all over the world. The speakers at this luncheon focused on looting in the middle east, cases of illicit imports, and notable museum thefts. As a curator and conservator of Native American artifacts, however, I found much of the talk was relevant to the looting that happens right here in the U.S., albeit on a smaller, less industrial scale.

The first talk, by Oya Topçuoğlu, was riveting. For one thing, the demonstration of the sheer scale of looting happening in the middle east was incredible (see photo below).


On 4 August 2011 (left ), the soil at Dura-Europos is relatively undisturbed both inside and outside the walled city. On 2 April 2014 (right), however, very high-density looting is present inside the ancient city wall, while portions of the archaeological site beyond the city wall have been covered with thousands of individual pits. A number of vehicles (circled in red) are visible within the walls of the site. Coordinates: 34.74 N, 40.73 E. Image ©DigitalGlobe | U.S. Department of State, NextView License | Analysis AAAS. -https://www.aaas.org/page/ancient-history-modern-destruction-assessing-status-syria-s-tentative-world-heritage-sites-7#Dura-Europos

The scale of looting and tracking of antiquities is virtually impossible to quantify, partly due to the dangers of getting people on the ground in areas of conflict, but Oya and her colleagues have begun to address some key questions in the quest to put an end to such activities, including: Where does the looting happen? How do we identify it? Who is involved in looting, trafficking and sale of antiquities? Where do looted artifacts go, how do they get there? Who are the buyers? Where do sales take place? What is sold for how much? What can we do from the safety of our offices, universities, museums, etc.?

She noted that the so-called Islamic State (IS) is not the only party doing the looting but that such activities are most prevalent in IS controlled areas. Sales are conducted through online auction sites and the dark web. Documents are often falsified and regularly contain a stock phrase such as “Property of (or from the collection of) a London (German, Swiss, etc.) gentleman. Acquired in the 1980’s.”

The question I was really interested in was “What can we do?”. For tracking artifacts stolen from museums, for example, new substances are becoming available like “smart water,” an invisible polymer than can be traced back to a certain batch. She notes it is also important to adequately train law enforcement, both local and international, to recognize antiquities. Finally she discussed a project called MANTIS (Modeling the Antiquities Trade in Iraq and Syria) about which more details can be found here: https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/mantis

Looting at American archaeological sites is on a much smaller scale and probably does not fund major terrorist organizations but this talk made me think about how important it is to track the sales of antiquities and do whatever we can, including training law enforcement, to halt the illicit trade of the world’s cultural heritage.

The next speaker L. Burgess, was a lawyer who discussed issues that lawyers deal with like title, authenticity, and provenance. She highlighted some of the more famous art heist and illicit import cases. Again she pointed out the issue of falsified documents such as in the Steinhart case from the mid 1990’s in which a million dollar 3rd-4th century BC Sicilian gold phiale from Italy was claimed to be from Switzerland and worth only $150,000. She also talked a bit about repatriation and mentioned that she feels institutions are moving toward long term loans rather than transfers of ownership.

Finally, Dawn Rogala talked about some of the things to think about if you are approached to work with legal cases dealing with repatriation, art theft or forgery. She discussed what it means to be a subject matter expert, for example, you must be willing to testify. She mentioned questions you should ask yourself like, are you even allowed to testify or do job restrictions, for example, prevent it? Are you actually qualified? She says you must ask agents what is expected of you. And of course, ask yourself do you have time to do this? She also went over what language to use, how to write reports, and general things to be cognizant of.

Overall the themes of the luncheon were crucial for many people in our field. It was odd to juxtapose the discussion of war-zone looting with the delicious lunch we were eating in the comfort of a plush conference room but the luncheon format did allow some good open discussion and, frankly, kept me from getting too depressed when thinking about the vast scale and impenetrability of the illicit antiquities trade.