Stones, bones and culture: international efforts to recover looted antiquities

Mark V Vlasic, IBA Fellow

About the IBA Fellowship for Innovation

The tenth-century treasure had been sitting in a museum in Denver for nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the Getty Museum was fighting to keep its hold on alleged illicit antiquities it has held since the 1970s. And in a private collection owned by Nicholas Cage, a dinosaur looted from the Gobi Desert, was ordered returned.

Now treasures from our collective history are returning home to such places as Cambodia, Italy, Iraq, Mongolia, and Peru, slowly righting the wrongs of history.

Stones and bones rarely make the news, but the last few months have been exceptional. Despite efforts to the contrary, the people of Cambodia, Italy, Iraq, Mongolia and Peru are slowly being reunited with pieces of their heritage – and in a move to help protect the heritage from the cradle of civilization from the illicit marketplace in America, the US Congress – thanks to the leadership of Ed Royce, Chris Smith, Elliot Engle, William Keating and David Perdue – recently passed The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act.

In the long-running effort to return artefacts looted from Cambodia, which was besieged by civil war and ‘The Killing Fields’ in the sixties and seventies, the Denver Art Museum agreed to return the tenth-century sandstone statue of the warrior god Roma to Cambodia, where it may be viewed at Cambodia’s National Museum. 

The relic is missing its head and feet, but was determined to be a match for an empty pedestal found at the Koh Ker complex. Cambodia also received the figure of the monkey god Hanuman form the Cleveland Museum in the early half of 2015, which was the sixth ‘blood antiquity’ (antiquities looted during conflict) returned to Cambodia in recent years.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art volunteered two statutes to Cambodia – and after court orders, protracted litigation and/or lengthy discussions – Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and the Norton Simon Museum are other leading institutions who have decided to return cultural treasures to Cambodia.

Italy is known for its long-term campaign to recover looted antiquities from museums, private collections, and auction houses.

In the same month as the Cleveland return to Cambodia, fifteen pieces were returned to Italy, after having been smuggled into the US. Indeed, Italy and its famed Carabinieri ‘cultural commando team’ has been working with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit of the US Department of Homeland Security to investigate leads in nine cities including New York, Buffalo, Baltimore, Boston, Miami, and San Diego. 

While no criminal charges are being brought for the recently recovered pieces, Italy famously brought criminal charges against a senior Getty Museum official, Marion True, for conspiring with criminal enterprises to knowingly acquire looted artwork from Italy.

Peru has also recovered over 4,000 pre-Colombian artefacts from Argentina within the last few months. The artefacts were seized from collectors and traffickers in Buenos Aires, and included Peruvian textiles, woods, metals, pottery, fibres, and bones. 

“ Aside from any moral considerations regarding looting, or the artistic, scientific, and cultural interests involved, governments have a national security interest in preventing it

They were returned after the signing of the Agreement for the Protection, Conservation, Recovery, and Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported or Transferred Cultural, Archaeological, Artistic, and Historical Property.  

Interesting to many young people – including my godson Lucas – the US government has been particularly involved with repatriating looted dinosaur skeletons and bones to Mongolia. The US Attorney’s office has been working closely with Mongolia for years, and in 2013, US officials returned a fully assembled dinosaur to Mongolia.

Representing the breadth of looted heritage, Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage was found to have, in his private collection, a looted Tyrannosaurus bataar skull, purchased for over a quarter million dollars from a Beverly Hills gallery known to work with a convicted commercial paleontologist. Cage admirably agreed to return the specimen to Mongolia, and is not believed to have known the source of the skull, or expected to face criminal charges.

Creating headlines, a Los Angeles art dealer, Jonathan Markell, was recently sentenced to 18 months in prison for ‘conspiring to smuggle looted archaeological resources into the United States.’ 

According to reports, Markell would knowingly acquire pieces looted from Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and China, and then would ‘donate’ these pieces to charitable institutions such as museums and universities and reap tax benefits for his donation. In issuing the sentence, the federal judge stated it was a message to collectors, gallery owners, and museums to stop collecting and trading looted antiquities.

Interestingly, other jurisdictions seem to be increasingly sympathetic towards nations’ cultural heritage and property rights. For example, a German court recently affirmed Egypt’s right to a pre-dynastic Egyptian pot and ordered it returned to its homeland. The piece was evidently looted from Egypt amidst the security lapses following the January 2011 revolution, and is believed to have been a relic of Egypt’s trade with the Levantine civilization.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the US Departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security returned to the Iraqi government an ancient carving of Assyrian King Sargon II, which was to fetch $1-2 million dollars on the black market. The return included a recovery of about 64 additional looted antiquities – items that are that much more significant as the world watches to see what might happen with the possible rupture of the Mosul Dam, which could cause a devastating toll to human life and cultural heritage in Iraq.

Aside from any moral considerations regarding looting, or the artistic, scientific, and cultural interests involved, governments have a national security interest in preventing it and eliminating black market trade that facilitates the sale of looted artefacts and antiquities. Recent research – and particularly the actions of ISIS in the Middle East – have connected black market antiquities with terrorist financing, creating additional incentives and benefits to cracking down on the black market.

In a US Congress perceived by many to be log-jammed, the aforementioned congressional leaders deserve much credit for pushing through The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, which was recently signed into law by President Barack Obama. The law helps restrict ISIS’ ability to profit from the sale of antiquities, by implementing an emergency ban on the import of archaeological or ethnological items that have been removed from Syria since 2011, as well as banning the sale of such items in the United States.

Considering that UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova has raised the global alarm regarding ‘cultural cleansing underway in [Iraq],’ and has protested the ‘systematic destruction of humanity's ancient heritage,’ these congressional actions are positive responses to our global heritage crisis. 

And while more could be done, perhaps via international institutions such as the World Economic Forum or the OECD, to form a global stakeholder engagement group to find a public-private solution to limit the marketplace of ‘blood antiquities,’ the recent seizure of antiquities from Asia Week and elsewhere – thanks to law enforcement agencies such as the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the US Department of Justice, the US Department of Homeland Security and the Italian Carabinieri – provide optimism that we can take useful steps to limit the plunder of our global cultural heritage. More law enforcement and more international cooperation are likely to serve as the path to help ensure future generations can learn from our ancient past.


Mark V Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, and senior fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for Law, Science & Global Security and its Institute of International Economic Law, served as the first head of operations of the joint World Bank-UN Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. A member of the Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution teams and former White House Fellow/special assistant to the US Secretary of Defense, he is an advisor to the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, and leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group. He is one of three Fellows under the IBA’s newly inaugurated Fellowship for Innovation programme.