In the more than four years that I worked as a journalist in Cambodia, I can’t say I covered many happy news stories. So I remember well the ones I did, and the return of the Angkorian-era statues from the Koh Ker temple, looted during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, was among them. It was a proud moment for the impoverished country, which had retrieved the stolen antiquities after New York-based auction house Sotheby’s lost a lawsuit.
Now, more and more nations that have seen their invaluable artifacts pilfered under colonization or conflict are demanding the items be repatriated, and museums and auction houses in the West are under pressure to comply. But the era of tomb raiders is far from over. Pandemic-related lockdowns and empty heritage sites have proved a boon for traffickers. This Daily Dose dives into ancient mysteries that make Indiana Jones movies seem dull, examines current controversies around repatriations and gives you a peek at the world’s most sought-after plunder.
Stranger Than Fiction
Gilgamesh and the Museum of the Bible
In July, the U.S. returned a mind-boggling 17,000 potentially looted artifacts to Iraq, one of the largest-ever restitutions of cultural heritage. Most of the returned items came from the collection of Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, a financial supporter of evangelical ministries who had acquired them for his Museum of the Bible. But how the treasures got there from the Middle East was far from biblical. The evangelical tycoon’s museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in 2017, was stocked with antiquities looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad during the U.S. invasion. The ancient Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, for example, was stolen from Iraq and sold to them by Christie’s — Hobby Lobby is suing the auction house.
Kim Kardashian and the Golden Coffin
The reality TV star and Egyptian antiquities don’t often get mentioned in the same breath, but in 2018 a gold-clad Kardashian was photographed at the Met Gala next to a similarly dazzling Egyptian artifact. The photo provided a lead for a long-running investigation into the whereabouts of the golden coffin of Nedjemankh, a first-century B.C. priest, stolen by tomb raiders during the Egyptian revolution in 2011. The object — and a forged export license — was bought by the Met for $4 million in 2017. Investigators subpoenaed the New York museum and it was handed over to Egyptian officials, all thanks to the viral picture of Kardashian — who was herself named in a civil suit this year as the intended recipient of an illegally imported Roman statue.
The Islamic State and the Antiquarians
The Taliban blew up Afghanistan’s priceless Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. Another militant organization, the Islamic State group, decided to try a different tack with the historical treasures of Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya: pawning them for cash. Barcelona antique dealer Jaume Bagot Peix and another Spaniard were arrested in 2018 in what was reportedly the first police operation regarding the financing of terrorism with looted art. Bagot Peix has denied selling treasures pilfered from Libya, but there’s no denying the massive market for IS-pilfered blood antiquities. Five years ago, the FBI discovered a third-century Syrian mosaic of Hercules hidden in the most mundane of places: a Californian garage. Deborah Lehr, chair of the Antiquities Coalition, a D.C.-based organization combating cultural racketeering, tells OZY the U.S. is “arguably the largest unregulated market in the world” for stolen art.
Current Controversies and Recent Repatriations
Global Hot Spots
“While newspaper headlines often focus on illicit antiquities looted from the Middle East, the black market in ancient art from Asia is the so-called wild, wild East of the art world,” Lehr tells OZY. Her organization is tracking U.S. investigations of interconnected criminal networks of antiquities dealers Subhash Kapoor and Nancy Wiener, who along with the now-deceased Douglas Latchford, have been accused of looting and trafficking countless treasures “worth hundreds of millions of dollars from Afghanistan to Japan and everywhere in between,” Lehr says. Meanwhile, despite the Islamic State group’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, “We are also hearing . . . that other armed groups are copying the ISIS playbook in Libya, Yemen and the Sahel,” she adds.
The Kapoor case is a stunning tale of a global multimillion-dollar smuggling ring spanning three decades and multiple continents. The disgraced art dealer, once based in New York, is now awaiting trial in India. In the meantime, collections are returning items associated with him. In July, the National Gallery of Australia announced it was returning $3 million worth of looted antiquities to India. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office also has an extradition request out for the dealer, who it says is responsible for “the illegal looting, exportation and sale of ancient art from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia and other nations” and running a $145 million smuggling operation.
The Guennol Stargazer
But getting institutions to return art objects to their country of origin isn’t easy. Last week, for example, a Manhattan judge rejected a case brought by Turkey seeking to reclaim an Anatolian idol. Known as the Guennol Stargazer, the marble piece had been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for decades, but Ankara only objected when it was put up for sale by Christie’s four years ago. The Turkish government sued, but the federal judge ruled that although the statue most certainly came from Turkey, there was insufficient evidence it had been excavated after the issuance of a law governing national ownership.
A son — or in this case, the daughter — is not responsible for the sins of the father. That’s why this year, shortly after the death of her notorious art dealer dad, Douglas Latchford, Nawapan Kriangsak returned his entire $50 million collection of Cambodian artifacts to the Southeast Asian nation. Latchford had 125 works of ancient Khmer art, many allegedly removed from the country’s jungle temples. Kriangsak felt the weight of those allegations and history: Cambodia lost much of its priceless cultural heritage under the ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Latchford was charged with trafficking in New York in 2019 but claimed he was trying to protect the precious pieces from the Khmer Rouge.
Point of No Return?
So, is Latchford’s argument valid? With the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban last month, there’s fear the group could profit from the plunder of the country’s heritage, with credible reports of them having done so in the 1990s. But while Lehr shares those worries, she finds the notion that buyers of looted antiquities are “protecting” them problematic. Ancient societies, she tells OZY, “are cradles of civilization,” and the only reason their cultural treasures have survived for millennia is that the people have protected them despite the rise and fall of empires. Lehr says it is up to the global community to protect our cultural heritage, wherever it is. Greece, for example, which has long sought the return of the Elgin marbles, was outraged a few years ago when photos showed a leak in the galleries that house them at the British Museum.
World’s Most Wanted
Yemen: Alabaster Stone Inscription
This third-century B.C. stone tablet is believed to have been stolen from the Awwam Temple in Yemen between 2009 and 2011, before that country’s devastating civil war. The object, also known as the “Sanctuary of the Queen of Sheba,” was last seen at an auction in Paris, where it was snapped up by an unknown buyer. Now, with the Middle Eastern country mired in conflict, an antiquities NGO has determined that more than 1,600 pieces have been looted from Yemen’s museums. Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak has warned that rebels and Islamists are arming themselves through the sale of the country’s treasures, and the U.S. government has officially closed its borders to Yemeni antiquities.
China: Old Summer Palace Zodiac Heads
If you’ve ever been to Beijing, you’ve likely visited the stunning Old Summer Palace. But one thing you wouldn’t have seen at the Qing dynasty ruins — the palace was looted by British and French troops during the Opium Wars and then destroyed by the British — are several statues from a series known as the zodiac heads. While the majority of the animated and lively sculptures of the 12 animals from Chinese astrology have since been recovered and returned to China, the missing few remain a source of anger to Beijing. In 2019, the bronze horse head statue was returned nearly 160 years after it was pilfered, but the whereabouts of the snake, dog, sheep, dragon and rooster remain unknown. Contemporary artist Ai Weiwei even got in on the controversy, recreating the zodiac heads for an exhibition as a critique of Chinese nationalism.
Ethiopia: Kwer’ata Re’esu Icon
Fifteen elephants and 200 mules. That’s how many animals were needed to transport the massive bounty of loot the British pillaged from Ethiopia during a 19th century expedition. The “Kwer’ata Re’esu” painting of Jesus was created in the 16th century and stolen from the mountain fortress of Emperor Tewodros II in Magdala along with other treasures. While the painting was made outside of Ethiopia, possibly by a Flemish or Portuguese artist, it belonged to Ethiopia’s monarchy, and the icon was used to encourage troops from Ethiopia — the only sub-Saharan country never to be colonized — to go to battle. It’s now owned by an anonymous Portuguese collector.
The Americas: Kolomoki Pottery, Río Azul Mask
The Americas aren’t immune to cultural heritage controversies. Ceremonial burial pottery dating to 300-800 C.E. was extracted from the Kolomoki Mounds in Georgia in the 1950s, but 129 of the priceless ceramic artifacts were then stolen from a museum in 1974. Some pieces have been found but most remain missing. Further south, in Guatemala, the hunt is on for a Maya civilization funerary mask depicting the sun god Kinich Ahaw fiercely sticking out his tongue. It’s believed the Río Azul mask was looted in the 1970s and was last seen on display at a Barcelona museum in 1999, but today its precise location is unknown.