On March 12, 2014 the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities (ICPEA) and the Embassy of Egypt in Washington, D.C. held a roundtable discussion on the issue of cultural racketeering — the systematic looting and trafficking of art and antiquities by organized crime. Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim Ali, was the guest speaker. The gathering explored practical ways the international community can support Egypt in combatting cultural racketeering. It drew on experts from universities, non-profits, business, and think tanks to develop workable, innovative solutions to slow down the theft of Egypt’s unique past.
Minister Ibrahim framed the discussion by outlining the major challenges facing his Ministry in protecting antiquities: criminal gangs using heavy machinery to loot as well as the destruction and looting of sites and museums. Many of the sites are in isolated areas, which presents a unique challenge in controlling looting. Clearly, additional site security is required. The Minister also expressed the importance of cooperating with the global community, including the international auction houses, given the flood of illicit Egyptian antiquities into developed country markets. Finally, the Minister is leading an initiative to update the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property to create greater remedies for countries trying to protect their heritage during times of crisis.
The experts roundtable discussed innovative solutions that could be employed by the US, Egypt, and members of the international community to combat looting. One clear area of consensus is that cultural racketeering is a global crime with losses in the billions of dollars each year. A global solution is needed for this international crime. As part of that solution, it is important to raise awareness in the international community about the plight of countries subject to cultural racketeering and what the loss of these items mean to their culture and their economy. Conservation organizations, such as those running the campaigns against ivory, have created a model for successful awareness campaigns. Building awareness in the global community will help educate individuals about the negative consequences of buying illicitly obtained artifacts.
To run any successful campaign, reliable data is critical. Additional research needs to be conducted into who is doing the looting – starting with a focus on Egypt. Any rumors of organized crime or terrorist’s networks engaging in the illicit trade must be substantiated. In addition, credible numbers should be developed about the global scope of the problem. It is difficult to quantify this underground trade, but reliable numbers exist for some countries, such as Egypt.
The group noted that engaging the local communities is critical to any long-term success. Educational campaigns for children, creating awareness of the linkage between the artifacts and the community’s core cultural identity are essential to vest the local citizens in protecting their own sites. In addition, the discussants agreed that social entrepreneurship has an important role to play. Monetizing the value of the sites – directly or indirectly – creates an added incentive to protect the valuable “assets” of the archaeological site.
A small group of interested parties will reconvene to explore in more detail potential solutions to this global challenge. Next steps include:
• Contracting for additional research to quantify global looting as well as developing more information about global looting networks
• Exploring “pride campaigns” and how they might apply around archaeological sites
• Developing plans for a global public relations campaign to help build awareness on the consequences of buying illicit antiquities
• Identifying how technology might assist in protecting archaeological sites, especially remote sites