“The looting of cultural heritage has been happening since the very existence of cultural heritage, it is not anything new, but what we see now is that looting has become highly organized”

26 June 2016
By Molly Fannon, Director of the Office of International Relations, Smithsonian Institution

Every year, thousands of artefacts disappear from museums, churches, private collections, public institutions or archaeological sites. From antique weapons to paintings, from coins to watches, from religious objects to archaeological finds, tens of thousands of specimens forming part of the world’s archaeological and cultural heritage are stolen or looted.

Trafficking in items dating back to previous generations began thousands of years ago. However, over the past few decades, the phenomenon has, unfortunately, become a problem of epidemic proportions.

Estimates of the size and profitability of black markets in looted, stolen and smuggled works of art and antiquities are notoriously unreliable, but specialists agree that this is one of the world’s biggest illegal enterprises, worth billions of US dollars, which has naturally attracted interest from organized crime as well as military and terrorist groups.

Combating this illegal trade requires the dedicated mobilization of Customs administrations as well as specific knowledge to identify illicit transactions. Yet, enforcement authorities face many difficulties due to a lack of expertise in determining the quality of the objects they come across, together with the problem of assessing their value and the authenticity of their provenance.

Hence the need for cooperation with relevant stakeholders, including professionals and experts committed to the protection of cultural heritage. To understand how this cooperation works in practice, we spoke with Molly Fannon, the Director of the Office of International Relations at the Smithsonian Institution, and asked her about the Institution and its activities, with a focus on the illicit trade in cultural goods and cooperation with law enforcement authorities.

During the 2016 Council sessions, the WCO and the Smithsonian Institution signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in which both parties agree to consider joint projects and activities, such as the development and delivery of training or the supply of information and expertise to field officers, aimed at helping them to identify cultural heritage objects.

What is the mission of the Smithsonian Institution and what type of professionals does it have on its staff?

The Smithsonian Institution was established in 1846 with funds given by a man named James Smithson to the United States (US) government. He was a British scientist and someone who had never set foot in the US before. He left his entire estate to the US government to create an organization dedicated only to the increase and diffusion of knowledge with the world.

That gift created the world’s leading museum, education and research complex. Today, the Smithsonian Institution has 21 museums. We just opened our 21st museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on 24 September of this year.

We have the largest collection of items with more than 159 million objects. But, as the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, said in 1852, “the worth and importance of the Institution is not to be estimated by what it accumulates within the walls of its building, but by what it sends forth to the world.”

Today, we work in more than 150 countries, doing everything from astrophysics research to under water deep sea archaeology and exploration, from climate change science to biodiversity conservation, from anthropological research to modern art, everything under the sun…The key to all we do, our motivation, is to safeguard the world’s memory; the memory of life on earth from prehistoric time to the memory of cultures around the world, and to share this knowledge with the world.

Because we have such diverse museums and research centres, we also have, as you would imagine, very diverse staff. More than 6,000 employees, including more than 500 PhD level scientists, work at the Smithsonian. They work in partnership with colleagues all over the world and have built a global network of scholars in order to help us achieve our mission.

The sheer number and diversity of the objects in our collections has enabled our staff, among which are researchers, anthropologists, conservators and curators, to develop specific knowledge in the cultural heritage of most of the world’s regions – we have, for example, staff specialized in pre-Columbian art.

To understand the object and learn how to conserve it, they have at their disposal the most advanced technology in the world such as advanced microscopes, chemical analysers or even pet scans or 3D scanners, which enable them to see inside an object or get the exact shape of an object or an inscription. Thanks to our own staff and the network of professionals they have built, we can say that there are very few areas where we do not have specialization.

Despite difficulties in obtaining accurate global statistics on the scale of the problem, have you recently witnessed any specific developments in the illicit trade in cultural goods?

In terms of the size of the issue, there is general consensus among experts in this area that the threat has not been this large since World War II (WWII). The actual level of destruction really is highly debated right now between scholars and other practitioners who are involved, but what is not debated is that the destruction of cultural heritage is funding terrorism in parts of the world. The Wall Street Journal, for example, reported recently that the revenue from the Islamic State’s (ISIS) illegal trade in antiquities is second only to its revenue from oil.

What we see, which are especially troubling developments, is the systemization and professionalization of the looting. The looting of cultural heritage has been happening since the very existence of cultural heritage, it is not anything new, but what we see now is that looting has become highly organized!

For example, when you look at satellite imagery of sites like Dura Europos in Syria, you see an enormous growth in the ‘looting paths.’ In documents which were secured by the US State Department in Syria, we learn that the ISIS has issued ‘official’ looting permits to looters, allowing theft from archaeological sites and then collecting tax on looted goods. So we know that looting is being used in a systematic way for financial gains.

Let’s not forget that the aim is also to terrorize people, to erase their memory. The Czech historian Milan Hübl wrote some enlightening lines back in 1971 on this subject. He said, “the first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”

On the flip side, we have also seen an enormous outpouring of support from the global community, and a demand for action to combat this threat. The fact that the WCO signed a MoU with the Smithsonian is part of a pattern of what we see as many organizations standing up and waking up to the severity of the crisis, to the fact that cultural heritage really matters for a wide range of reasons.

In June this year, 21 dedicated cultural professionals from 18 different countries participated in the First Aid to Cultural Heritage course organized by the Smithsonian and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). They came to Washington, D.C. for a month to learn how to coordinate their response to protecting heritage in times of crisis. This is a testimony to the diversity of support out there in terms of combatting this issue. There is also an overall acknowledgement that we have gotten to the point of a crisis in this area, and that once a cultural object is lost, it is often lost forever. So, the time for action is now.

Why should governments and enforcement authorities spend time and money on the cultural sector, and why does it matter?

All governments have to weigh different priorities. They might consider that stopping the trafficking in guns or spending money on economic development or education is more important than protecting a painting or an archaeological object. I’ll talk about why the cultural sector also matters. But, let me first share a story with you…

Just after the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, the Smithsonian, with many partners especially USAID and the State Department, launched a major project in response to the disaster. We had very close ties with our cultural heritage colleagues in Haiti, given our long history of working together. The then Minister of Culture in Haiti, Olsen Jean Julien, explained that after saving people’s lives, the next thing to save was their reasons for living.

I will talk in a second about why cultural heritage is valuable to the economy, but let me first highlight that it has enormous intrinsic value: it represents what we all are as people; it helps nations come together; it helps a community to get a sense of its identity; it helps us negotiate differences, often in a peaceful way; and it gives us resilience as societies.

So, countries coming out of conflict are increasingly looking to restore cultural institutions and to recover cultural heritage that they might have lost or that might have been damaged during the warfare. We have seen it in Colombia, where the Smithsonian is partnering with the National Center for Historical Memory to build a new National Museum of Memory, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where highlighting shared heritage is also an opportunity to bring communities together.

Of course, as I mentioned, real economic value should not be underestimated. The cultural sector is an enormous driver of economic growth. The 2015 study by CISAC estimated that the sector worldwide contributes around 2.25 billion US dollars to the global economy. It is an amazing employer; and is particularly an enabling employer of women. In most developing countries, handicraft is second only to agriculture in terms of employment. Culture contributes to the tourism and education sectors. There are, therefore, a lot of reasons to invest in the protection of cultural heritage.

Satellite imagery of Dura Europos, a 150-acre site in Syria dating to 300 B.C., shows how it looked in 2012. Photo: FBI
Dura Europos as it appeared in 2014, covered by looters’ pits. Photo: FBI


How do you support enforcement authorities in their fieldwork in general and in the area of cultural goods in particular?

We have provided support to actors involved in the fight against illegal trafficking in wildlife by tailoring sophisticated DNA barcoding tools so that they can be used more easily, and by harnessing our collections of millions of species to develop a global DNA reference library. In Kenya, for example, our scientists have worked with the National Museums and with the Wildlife Service on DNA barcoding. The objective is to be able to prove that confiscated wildlife items were sourced from Kenya, and to be able to identify the exact location where the items were sourced.

Because we are a trust instrumentality of the US federal government, we have a long partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Defense, and the Department of State. Among other things, we help support and deliver training to US Customs and Border Protection through an agreement with the State Department and DHS. Since 2008, our museum curators, our conservators, and many other professionals have trained more than 350 Customs officers to recognize looted cultural objects. We do it once or twice a year, and hold our training sessions inside our museums so that Customs officers are able to interact with the collections and visit our laboratories. They also get to know our staff, making it easier to know who they can call upon if they come up with a case and need assistance.

Recently, one of our anthropologists worked with to analyse 100 objects that DHS agents had discovered and which appeared to be of pre-Columbian origin. DHS needed to know whether the objects were authentic or whether they were fakes as the importer was claiming. It came out that more than 90% of the objects were authentic pre-Columbian artefacts. They were priceless. Many of them had never been seen before by the anthropologist working on the case, although she had more than 40 years’ experience. If they had successfully been imported into the US, a lot of knowledge would have been lost about that pre-Columbian era. Had those objects disappeared, that would have been a whole part of our memory gone.

The objects were removed from their original site, and often what is most important for archaeologists and other scholars is studying objects in context: how they relate to each other; and how they relate to where they have been found. Once they are removed from their context, a lot of knowledge is nearly impossible to put back in place. So, it is not like there was nothing lost, but there would have been a greater loss had DHS agents not seized those objects and sent them to our museum for study.

We envision expanding our partnership with US enforcement officials and taking that model of partnership global. One of the reasons we are so excited to work with the WCO and its Members is that we can learn from our experience in training together, and bring that sort of training experience to Customs officers all over the world. The goal is also to partner with local cultural organizations and museums around the world, so that they can be part of the solution too.

You also cooperate with museums around the world. Can you describe some of the activities undertaken under such cooperation frameworks?

At the Smithsonian, we cooperate with museums and peer institutions all the time around scholarship and research, to build capacity and undertake training programmes. These are reciprocal learning programmes as we learn from each other in developing master plans, collection management plans, and education programmes.

We also work with museums and ministries of culture in countries which are coming out of some sort of natural disaster or man-made disaster. In Haiti, after the earthquake, we gathered 30 partners and organized a response. Over a few years, we trained our Haitian colleagues and worked alongside them to rescue more than 30,000 pieces. We also trained more than 100 new Haitian cultural professionals. Just last year, a new centre in Port de France was created to continue this work. We are working in Nepal in a similar way.

What we are increasingly seeing is a desire from all of our colleagues around the world in the museum sector to play a part in solving the real crisis we are facing when it comes to the preservation of the world’s cultural heritage today. Through our new partnership with the WCO, we hope to help bridge these communities of law enforcement professionals and cultural experts, so that together we can all address this global crisis.

The Smithsonian Institution has a vast collection of artefacts. What due diligence does it carry out to ensure that they are not stolen or looted?

We acknowledge that museums, especially in the past, have been part of the problem. Museums often had objects in their collection that might not have been acquired through the proper channels. So, the Smithsonian takes due diligence to ensure that objects have not been stolen or looted very seriously.

For example, for all new acquisitions, each of our museums has set up a collection management policy which requires documentation of the provenance, of the kind of chain of custody of those objects over time. Each has its own unique policy as museums’ collections vary so widely. These policies are made available to the public.

As a general rule, we only collect items when there is a good faith intention to keep them in our collection for a long time. We also have multiple programmes across our museums to carry out provenance research. Provenance is the history of ownership of an artwork or an artefact which provides really important information about the attribution, which is the authorship of the object. We follow guidelines such as those of the American Alliance of Museums or the Association of Art Museum Directors, especially concerning objects that may have been confiscated during WWII for example.

We have a specific programme which aims to identify the provenance of all objects in collections that were created before 1946 or acquired after 1952, that underwent a change of ownership during the period of WWII, and that might have been in central Europe during that time. All the provenance research is made available to the public. Our Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian art also initiated, in 2008, a comprehensive provenance research programme for their entire Asian art collection. We repatriate objects when necessary and when possible, and have repatriation objects officers who deal with how to send objects back.

Cooperation is once again a key word, but is it always straightforward?

What we have learned over the last eight years working with Customs officials is that while Customs officials and museum professionals might speak different languages, might think about the world in different ways, and perhaps have different priorities on the surface, they have the same goal in mind, which is to protect what global citizens value as natural and cultural heritage. If we take the time to know one another, we will find that we complement each other’s skills and can establish very productive relationships.

I think that in most countries, a partnership already exists, at the national level, between Customs and national museums or with ministries of culture. But, should a WCO Member need help in establishing a dialogue with such institutions, we would be delighted to discuss options with them, and perhaps make recommendations. In most cases, the Smithsonian would already have relationships and contacts at the national level, and we would be able to help the conversation get started.


More information