In 2011, the Arab Spring mesmerized the world, but with this political change came a hidden scourge. We saw it ourselves just south of Cairo, in Saqqara at the Step Pyramid of Djoser, Egypt’s oldest pyramid. This 4600-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site was pockmarked with looters’ pits, the ground strewn with broken bits of sarcophogi, mummy wrappings, and pottery shards. But this moonscape was not the work of opportunistic tomb robbers, a problem that has plagued Egypt since ancient times. These pits were professionally dug with heavy equipment, and according to villagers, armed gangs were responsible.
At Saqqara and elsewhere, organized criminals had taken advantage of the security vacuum, descending on areas ripe for plunder. It wasn’t simple looting that we saw. It was cultural racketeering.
May 2011 ICPEA Mission to Egypt
Cultural racketeering is the systematic looting and trafficking of art and antiquities by organized crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation now ranks it as a multi-billion dollar global industry. Thieves and smugglers are not the only ones to profit. By purchasing an Egyptian papyrus, a Cambodian statue, or a Mayan vase on Madison Avenue, collectors may be putting money into the pockets of mafia syndicates, armed insurgencies, and terrorist organizations.
Yet despite its dire scale and significance, cultural racketeering is not monitored or studied like arms running, drug smuggling, or even the illegal wildlife trade. There are few reliable statistics and fewer answers to even the most basic questions about this illicit activity. Once an artifact enters the black market, it is almost always lost forever, and with it, we all lose another piece of our shared human story.
Cultural racketeering is a global problem. It requires a global solution.