Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi state destroyed politically unacceptable cultural property – literature from 1933 onwards, art from 1939 onwards. Yet it also sold such assets, which served to “cleanse” the territory while subsidizing the state’s crimes. Many pieces that “could not be liquidated” quickly, despite the market’s awareness of their political unacceptability, “were simply destroyed.”Footnote 1 However, destruction and trafficking were intertwined processes, and many pieces remained and were sold. At one point in the process, when Bernhard Böhmer, Karl Buchholz, Hildebrand Gurlitt, and Ferdinand Möller – private dealers who had been appointed as buyer-sellers by the Nazi Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art – had failed to sell all of the supposedly “degenerate art” that had been confiscated,Footnote 2 the commission publicly burned up to 14,829 of the remaining pieces.Footnote 3 Following this destruction, public institutions and private collectors abroad, in countries ranging from Switzerland to the United States,Footnote 4 bought many of the remaining pieces, while dealers and collectors in Germany bought some through the appointed dealers, and these appointed dealers also kept some for themselves.Footnote 5
It was discussed “internationally … at the time, that one could not buy art from Germany because the proceeds would be used [to buy] armaments.”Footnote 6 For some buyers, the identity and intent of the ultimate seller may have been a moral concern that needed to be assuaged, or at least a reputational problem that needed to be obscured, by indirect dealing. For others, it was not. The director of Kunstmuseum Basel, Georg Schmidt, dismissively set the value of “eternal cultural assets against [those of] rapidly aging cannons [ewiges Kulturgut gegen rasch veraltende Kanonen].”Footnote 7 The museum’s government loan-financed purchase of 21 artworks was “celebrated as a “rescue operation,” “while the director was “celebrated … as an ‘escape helper’.”Footnote 8
Such purchases of conflict art or conflict antiquities, which have funded, facilitated, or otherwise incentivized genocide, warfare, espionage, oppression, and/or terrorism, have long been defended as “rescue.” They exist as one point in a broader line of defense of sincerely temporary handling, ostensibly temporary handling, and explicitly permanent possession of looted antiquities and other stolen cultural goods. In turn, it is one line in a broader array of defenses of various acts and processes of acquisition of cultural property as “rescue” from destruction,Footnote 9 “protection” from supposedly unacceptable stewardship,Footnote 10 and “rescue” from the market.Footnote 11
For as long as those logics have existed, they have been exploited. For example, the Kunstmuseum Basel’s shopping spree was not “rescue from destruction [Rettung vor Vernichtung]” because the works were “too valuable [zu wertvoll]” and “would have found … other buyers [es hätten … andere Käufer gefunden].”Footnote 12 Thus, the international public subsidy of the Nazi regime had only “rescued” those artworks from obscurity in the international private market. This study explores this kind of “rescue” by purchase of cultural property from conflict zones or through conflict actors.
The argument in principle
The defense of and for “rescue” is made by public institutions in victimized countries, which buy looted antiquities on the black market to prevent their disappearance into foreign collections, as well as by public institutions in market countries, which buy looted antiquities to prevent their disappearance into private collections. The claim of “rescue” is also deployed by dealers, private collectors, and private institutions that defend the practice yet obscure the activity, as they may risk prosecution in one or another jurisdiction for one or another offence and by dealers, private collectors, and private institutions that defend the practice and detail the activity since they leverage public sympathy and political interest to discourage prosecution.Footnote 13 Private actors may or may not enjoy protection by sympathetic authorities or toleration by powerless authorities. Furthermore, due to its visible success as a technique of neutralizing threats to the conduct of criminal activity, it is also deployed by professional criminals (as opposed to professionals who commit crimes).
The cost of keeping cultural property in the country of origin
Resignation to the loss of community symbols is particularly difficult for citizens, professionals, officials, and institutions in victimized communities, especially as they are often lost to the markets of former colonial masters or enemy states. It may also raise suspicions that the local representatives who refuse to buy pieces are in league with the international market actors who consume the pieces that are not bought. Hence, the argument for “rescue” is deployed not only by members of victimized communities who act independently,Footnote 14 but also by poor states that encourage private subsidy of public campaigns, functionally weak states that encourage private conduct of acts in the national(ist) interest, and functionally weak states that orchestrate the private conduct of acts in the national(ist) interest.
For instance, since 2003, the National Archives of Afghanistan have been “buy[ing] antiquities” on the local market, “no questions asked,” with money from Afghanistan and Germany.Footnote 15 Also since 2003, Suleymaniyah Museum and the Directorate of Antiquities in Suleymaniyah in Iraq have been buying illicit antiquities, seemingly with money from politically exposed individuals, such as the one-time First Lady of Iraq, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad.Footnote 16 The museum and the directorate have also paid smugglers to recover antiquities before they have been smuggled abroad.Footnote 17 These programs immediately demonstrate the practical difficulties of implementing “rescue” by purchase. They offer far less than the commercial price, so some possessors continue to sell to the international market. Yet they still offer far more than the average national wage, so some people may loot in order to sell to the “rescuers.”Footnote 18
In recent years, on the back of the wave of iconoclasm in West Asia, North Africa, and West Africa, most prominently in Syria and Iraq, public institutions, private institutions, and private organizations in the global North/West have taken the opportunity of the crisis to represent themselves as “asylums,”Footnote 19 “refuge[s],” or “safe haven[s]”Footnote 20 for endangered cultural heritage from the global South/East.Footnote 21 For instance, the J. Paul Getty Trust in the United States presents collections that are outside the country of origin as facilities to distribute risk because “calamity can happen anywhere, but it won’t happen everywhere.”Footnote 22 The Museum of the Louvre in France has proposed that the storehouse for its permanent collection could also serve as a host for cultural property that is endangered by war, terrorism, and other forms of crisis.Footnote 23
Likewise, there has been a resurgence in the argument that individuals and institutions in safe countries should be able to “rescue” antiquities from danger zones by buying them. For example, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS), Hershel Shanks, has argued that “museums, antiquities dealers and collectors who have access” to looted antiquities should be “enlist[ed] … to rescue them by ransoming them” and “turn[ing them] over to the proper international authorities.”Footnote 24 While the BAS has since removed the statement from its website, it has petitioned that “important artifacts and inscriptions must be rescued and made available to scholars even though unprovenanced. … To vilify such activity results only in the loss of important scholarly information.”Footnote 25 This implies that to valorize such activity results only in the recovery of important scholarly information. Academics have used the same justification to benefit from the trade – and to support the market – by authenticating and publishing its otherwise undocumented material.Footnote 26
Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Museum, former member of the United States’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee, and current member of the market-aligned Committee for Cultural Policy, recognizes that such “rescue” might fuel the illicit market. Nonetheless, Vikan believes that “we should accept looted antiquities” from Syria and Iraq and accept the costs of their curation and repatriation in order to save them from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).Footnote 27 At the same time, he states,
[n]o one, anywhere, should buy art from ISIS. Should U.S. museums buy antiquities from Syria and Iraq, some of the money will likely go to refugees fleeing the region, and some will undoubtedly pass into the hands of the small-time looters and smugglers. … But there is no verifiable evidence … that ISIS obtains significant funding by selling antiquities or taxing art looters.Footnote 28
Notably, while Vikan recognizes “rescue” by purchase as a revenue stream for petty crime and asserts that it might even provide financial support to asylum seekers, he does not assert that there is no verifiable evidence that ISIS obtains any funding by selling antiquities and taxing art looters. In other words, he implicitly acknowledges that ISIS does obtain some funding from the illicit traffic in cultural goods.
Vikan insists that no one should buy art from ISIS, yet he defends the purchase of art from Syria and Iraq when some of it will have passed through the hands, or roadblocks, of ISIS. Since he encourages his audience to imagine that some of those purchases might benefit refugees, he is clearly not defending purchases only when the buyers have confirmed that the suppliers are refugees or have otherwise conducted whole supply chain due diligence. Since Vikan specifies that it would be unacceptable to buy art from ISIS, his statement implies that it would be acceptable for museums to buy looted antiquities from other politically motivated armed groups in order to save those objects from destruction by ISIS. Alternatively, it suggests ignorance of the involvement of other armed groups.
This perception misunderstands the calculated jihadist political economy of iconoclasm and trafficking. Unsellable objects are destroyed for propaganda, and their destruction thereby increases the marketability of the sellable objects that are supposedly threatened, while trafficking and racketeering finance not only acts of iconoclasm but also the most serious human rights violations. Trafficking and racketeering also finance the conduct of other warring parties, which may not have committed genocide but may have committed other gross human rights abuses. For instance, many of the artifacts that were removed from the Synagogue of Jobar during the war in Syria were held by Failaq al-Rahman. Amongst others, representatives of the Syrian Jewish community sought to buy back those stolen cultural goods.
This sprawling case demonstrates the intertwining of destruction and looting; the politics and economics of the war; the propaganda within Syria, across the region, and around the world; and the exploitation of the war in Syria by antiquities markets in Western countries. For example, the regime that destroyed the site presented the destruction as tampering with evidence by the rebels that had looted it. Failaq al-Rahman, which was an element of the rebel Free Syrian Army and an ally of the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra, was variously described as a group of rebels who were safekeeping the artifacts and as a group of jihadists who were ransoming them. And the threat to the remnants of the synagogue in Jobar was used to advertise the scarcity value of the elements that had been on the market since before the war.Footnote 29
A global practice and its global consequences
Based on a review of open sources, in the last 20 years, in one form or another, the defense of “rescue” has been made for antiquities from countries including Afghanistan,Footnote 30 Angola,Footnote 31 Bosnia,Footnote 32 Bulgaria,Footnote 33 Cambodia,Footnote 34 China,Footnote 35 Egypt,Footnote 36 Ethiopia,Footnote 37 France,Footnote 38 Guatemala,Footnote 39 Iraq,Footnote 40 Israel-Palestine,Footnote 41 Jordan,Footnote 42 the Netherlands,Footnote 43 Nigeria,Footnote 44 Pakistan,Footnote 45 Syria,Footnote 46 Turkey,Footnote 47 and UkraineFootnote 48 as well as for cultural objects belonging to vulnerable communities, such as Holocaust torahs.Footnote 49 More generally, rescue has been defended as the “only plausible strategy,” the “only feasible strategy” to preserve cultural property from any territories that are controlled by kleptocratic regimes or threatened by iconoclastic forces.Footnote 50
There have also been various experiments with amnesties for officially unapproved and/or outright illicit collections, some of which have been explicitly characterized as programs of rescue.Footnote 51 Even the notoriously brutal and culturally destructive Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has engaged in a project for the “homecoming” and “preservation” of antiquities, which has secured the “almost entirely … voluntar[y] … return [of] more than 46,000 objects” that had been held in more than 100 collections, 30,000 or more from collections of expatriates (14,000 of those from 14 collections in the United States), and 16,000 or more from collections of Saudis,Footnote 52 which had been collected both before and after the prohibition of unlicensed excavation, trading, and export of antiquities.Footnote 53
There has been extensive study of the materialFootnote 54 and intellectualFootnote 55 consequences of negligent and criminal collecting in general, which include the incentivization of looting, smuggling, and corruption; the destruction of archaeological evidence through unscientific extraction; and the subversion of archaeological knowledge through the acceptance of fakes, forgeries, and counterfeits as genuinely ancient works. There has also been some analysis of the claims and consequences of “rescue” by purchase in particular.Footnote 56 However, there has been extensive experimentation with “rescue” by purchase, which has been excused in accord with the law of necessity, as an activity that may involve complicity in lesser crimes in order to end or prevent greater crimes. So it is possible and necessary to ask whether those experiments have produced evidence of unjustifiable negative consequences and whether such experiments should continue.
Another article tests the theory that the only consequence of rescue is the recovery of important scholarly information, in relation to purchases by private collectors, by exploring the risks of financing organized crime in Guatemala and Iran; financing global transnational organized crime and the serious corruption that enables the supply chain in China; facilitating fraud and embezzlement in the United States; and facilitating corruption, laundering of illicit assets, and the art-washing of reputations of politically exposed persons in Angola and Bulgaria.Footnote 57 This article explores whether participants in (and facilitators of) “rescue” by purchase risk complicity in serious crime (beyond cultural property crime itself) and other serious harms, in relation to purchases of cultural objects from conflict zones or through conflict actors, by exploring the consequences in exceptionally well-documented cases in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Ukraine.
Financing of political violence in Cambodia and laundering of reputations around the world
The situation in Cambodia is convoluted, but “rescue” by purchase has featured in the debate around the illicit trade. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the United States long denied any illicit activity surrounding the Kneeling Attendants from the Koh Ker temple, pieces of which were donated to the museum between 1987 and 1992 by Raymond G. Handley and Milla Louise Handley and the auction house from which they had bought their pieces, Spink and Son, in the United Kingdom. Conversely, once the statues had been repatriated to Cambodia, another Khmer antiquities collector who had been associated with the donations, Douglas A. J. Latchford, who had been lauded by cultural heritage professionals and honored by Cambodia,Footnote 58 argued that if the statues had not been “moonlighted” (smuggled) out, “they would likely have been shot up for target practice by the Khmer Rouge.”Footnote 59
Yet, in the course of the conflicts in Cambodia between 1970 and 1998, the communist Khmer Rouge, its ally-then-enemy the Vietnam People’s Army, and its opponent nationalist Khmer Republic all conducted industrial looting.Footnote 60 Since then, trafficking has been dominated by the military and its shadow state.Footnote 61 Hence, “rescue” by purchase has run, and continues to run, the risk of contributing to conflict antiquities trafficking. At the time of his death, Latchford was being prosecuted for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, smuggling, and other charges that related to the trafficking of stolen cultural goods from Cambodia, Thailand, and India.Footnote 62
Fuelling of an illicit market and financing of political violence in Afghanistan
A range of public institutions, community initiatives, and private collectors have participated – or have claimed to participate – in “rescue” by purchase of looted antiquities from Afghanistan. For instance, one Gandharan Buddha that had been looted from the National Museum of Afghanistan was sold to a private collector in Japan, where the collector could not be prosecuted. With the support of the British Museum, a British antiquities dealer did something that he believed was “very moral, but illegal”: he bought the sculpture.Footnote 63 Subsequently, it was exhibited at the British Museum and then returned to Kabul.
The British Library bought (and received a donation that matched the cost of) unprovenanced birch bark manuscripts “in the interests of scholarship”Footnote 64 and committed to “consider[ing] any future claims for restitution.”Footnote 65 The Museum of Indian Art (Museum für Indische Kunst) in Germany asserted that it was “try[ing] to save the pre-islamic [sic] culture of Afghanistan and [it] plan[ned] to give everything back to the country.”Footnote 66 When challenged, Pakistan’s then prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, confirmed that she had “a number of Begrami ivories” that had been stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan (also known as the Kabul Museum), which she claimed were “in … safe keeping until … Afghanistan return[ed] to peace,” when the stolen goods would return to Kabul.Footnote 67 Her internal security minister, Naseerullah Khan Babar, was known to have numerous antiquities and later “admitted” that he too had bought a stolen Begrami ivory sculpture, for US $100,000, which he also claimed was “‘in safe keeping’ until peace return[ed] to Afghanistan.”Footnote 68 Manifestly, not only did they employ the same “techniques of neutralisation” – “excuses and justifications”Footnote 69 for their persistence in, or non-desistance from, criminal activity – but they also deployed the same narrative and the same script, almost word for word.
Similarly, Norwegian businessman Martin Schøyen, who is a decades-long collector of cultural objects with a focus on historical texts, asserted that he “rescu[ed]” Buddhist manuscripts that were at risk of iconoclastic destruction by the Taliban “for scholarship and for the common heritage of mankind,” through an operation where they were smuggled out of Afghanistan either with or for monks or refugees.Footnote 70 Contrarily, he never wished to return or sell any piece of his collection to an Islamic country because “one [could] never know what [would] happen in the Muslim states,”Footnote 71 where any non-Islamic object “would [be] at risk [ville vært i faresonen],”Footnote 72 though he has since been compelled to return stolen artifacts to Afghanistan and looted antiquities to Pakistan.Footnote 73
The realities of “rescue” from Afghanistan and Pakistan
In a way that suggests a cultural-historical genealogy, the Schøyen Collection comprises more than 20,000 texts from around the world, which focus on the Ancient Near East, the Classical world, medieval Europe, and modern Scandinavia. Specific categories include more than 2,000 palaeographic texts, more than 1,200 historical texts, around 630 literary texts, and more than 400 biblical texts; 19 special collections include things such as Dead Sea Scrolls, papyri plus ostraca, seals, objects that relate to China, and objects that relate to Buddhism. Various smaller collections include objects that relate to religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. One of Schøyen’s researchers challenged an investigation into his collection by pointing out that the British Library had been the first to get “many important Buddhist scrolls” that had been “discovered in Hadda in East Afghanistan” through the “grave robbing market.”Footnote 74 This explanation shows how the institution constituted a public model for socially accepted action, providing a narrative with which market actors could claim that their activity had moral validity, thereby neutralizing objections and burnishing (if not laundering) their reputations.
Indeed, looters in Pakistan have indicated that there had been practically “no market for such manuscripts … before the British Library … began to buy up these manuscripts [noe marked for slike skrifter … før British Library … begynte å kjøpe opp slike skrifter].”Footnote 75 So the institution did not merely constitute part of the market; it practically created the demand that incentivized the supply from Pakistan. Furthermore, the institution’s actions advertised the potential for the donation of assets from the market, which is a tax-deductible expense in some jurisdictions as well as a reputation-laundering strategy around the world. As with the public model for the private collection of looted antiquities, it consolidated a narrative with which the market could divest itself of inconvenient – and possibly otherwise unsellable – assets. Sometimes, private donors of rescued antiquities will have received a public subsidy in the form of a tax deduction that will have covered some or all of the costs of the acquisition. If the market value at the time of the donation was (or was valued as) greater than the cost of the acquisition, they may even have profited through the act of donation. Indeed, in any case, there is an incentive for receivers to conspire with donors to mis-value assets in order to secure their donation/reception. Thus, tax fraud through value manipulation is a broader problem, which again is worsened when it involves antiquities that have been extracted from conflict zones, potentially through violent action and/or for the benefit of violent actors.Footnote 76
Once it had been exposed, that initially denied marketization process was then increasingly valorized as rescuing the byproducts of the looting of other materials from discard or destruction. For instance, before the sources of the objects had been exposed, having interviewed and seemingly paraphrasing Schøyen’s researcher Jens Braarvig, the Art Newspaper rhetorically queried “what would have happened if those fleeing the Taliban and seeking refuge in the cave had not been able to sell their find” and concluded that “the fragile items might simply have been discarded or allowed to disintegrate.”Footnote 77 Narrating its supposed “rescue operation” since the exposure of its sources, the Schøyen Collection has noted: “Many of the micro-fragments were either being discarded or used” as components of amulets.Footnote 78 Two of Schøyen’s researchers, Paul Harrison and Jens-Uwe Hartmann, have appealed for realism over idealism as they have acknowledged that the illicit market incentivizes looting and the looting process destroys knowledge, yet they have observed that “illegal raiders” would be “less inclined to throw away a manuscript or use it to fuel their camp fires” if they knew that they could traffic it instead.Footnote 79
Obstacles to the return of cultural property and implications for acquisition
Sheer unwillingness to act is a major obstacle to restitution. Pakistan’s internal security minister Naseerullah Khan Babar was openly accused of “plot[ting] to sell” – in other words, to ransom – “the ivories back to Afghanistan.”Footnote 80 Neither Babar, nor Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, nor their heirs after their deaths, returned the stolen goods to the National Museum in Kabul.Footnote 81 The destruction of knowledge through the process of looting and trafficking is another significant obstacle to the return of cultural property. Depending on the case, the realization of return might require the plundered state to prove the plunder’s illicit export, which can be difficult or impossible to do for antiquities that have been looted, where they have not been documented during extraction, and even for artifacts that have been stolen, when they have not been exactly catalogued during archiving or when those records have not been protected from theft and destruction.
The British Library, for instance, inventoried the manuscripts as originating in Afghanistan,Footnote 82 yet it would only return the manuscripts if the state could demonstrate that it was the country of origin when the institution itself could not confirm whether the manuscripts were from Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Tajikistan. Such insecure supply chains have significant implications for any acquisition. Since the British Library did not even know from where the objects had been extracted, it could not know to whom its money had been paid, and it could not know that it had not contributed to a revenue stream for a kleptocratic regime, a criminal organization, or an armed group – or all three.Footnote 83
Laundering of antiquities and reputations with claims of “rescue” from Afghanistan
It is difficult to discuss this case because Schøyen has decried compilations of public facts – from sources that include his collection’s own database and publicationsFootnote 84 – as “questionable research by activist researchers [tvilsom forskning fra aktivistiske forskere],” “conspiracy theories [konspirasjonsteorier],” and “fake news [falske nyheter].”Footnote 85 He has insinuated that they include “libellous claims [injurierende påstandene]” about his activity.Footnote 86 Meanwhile, even though his onward sales of material have been enabled by his possession of Norwegian export permits, he has neither confirmed nor denied that “the material was exported [from Afghanistan] with the Taliban’s cooperation [Er materialet eksportert med Talibans medvirkning].”Footnote 87 Likewise, he has neither confirmed nor denied that Zahid Pervez Butt (or Zahid Parvez Butt), who was a “notorious narco and arms dealer [beryktede narko- og våpenhandleren],”Footnote 88 who was “suspected of selling weapons to the Taliban,”Footnote 89 was one of those “from whom [he had] directly or via intermediaries [received] manuscripts [av dem Schøyen direkte eller via mellomledd har handlet manuskripter fra],” let alone who all of his other sources were.Footnote 90
Nonetheless, as uncovered through an investigation by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) and confirmed by the subsequent return of the artifacts by Schøyen, it is known that some of the manuscripts had been stolen from the National Museum in Kabul. Schøyen, and academics who were authenticating and publishing his collection, had known for years that those manuscripts had been stolen and had withheld this information.Footnote 91 As indicated by a fax from Schøyen and an undercover recording of antiquities dealer William “Bill” Veres, which were secured by the NRK, it is also known that hundreds of fragments were not from Afghanistan but, rather, from Pakistan. Schøyen knew that his “primary source” had been “in the cave [in Gilgit] with the diggers” when they looted it.Footnote 92
Schøyen averred that the “rescue mission” consisted of notifying the market in the United Kingdom that he “would pay a fixed price per square inch for Buddhist manuscripts” from Afghanistan and Pakistan.Footnote 93 And he incidentally revealed that those manuscripts had been “looted and smuggled” out of Afghanistan and Pakistan before the Taliban took control, while he continued to make purchases afterwards, even though the Taliban profited from protection racketeering.Footnote 94 Later, due to investigations by the NRK, Schøyen “admitted” that he knew three smugglers who supplied his intermediary in the United Kingdom, and smuggler-turned-informant Michel van Rijn released leaked documents that demonstrated that Schøyen was supplied with looted antiquities directly by smugglers from victimized countries.Footnote 95 Protected sources asserted that one of Schøyen’s suppliers was Zahid Pervez Butt, the aforementioned alleged smuggler of arms and drugs as well as of antiquities.Footnote 96 Indeed, the NRK alleged that the Taliban “used [Butt’s] network to sell artefacts from Kabul Museum in order to buy weapons [brukte hans nettverk til å selge gjenstander fra Kabul museum for å kjøpe våpen].”Footnote 97
Furthermore, it appears that Schøyen laundered his and his collection’s reputation through the Schøyen Human Rights Foundation. The foundation was expected “to profit from [his] sale of antiquities” from his collectionFootnote 98 so that the work of the foundation whitewashed the formation of the collection, and both of his creations “whitewash[ed]” his reputation, with the knowing or ignorant assistance of the academics and professionals who authenticated and published his purchases and the political actors and state officials who pressed for the public acquisition of his private collection.Footnote 99
The realities of extraction from Afghanistan and Pakistan
The shifting narratives of some market actors who operate in Western countries stand in stark contrast to the consistent explanations of other market actors who are rooted in victimized countries as well as reports by journalists, studies by archaeologists, investigations by law enforcement agents, and testimony from violent political actors who engage in cultural property crime. For example, the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH) is a repository of last resort, which has been buying looted antiquities from the market in order to repatriate them to Afghanistan. SPACH does not feign ignorance of the potential consequences of its actions. Its own members have reported that the Taliban has bulldozed monasteries in order to uncover antiquities for sale.Footnote 100 When compiled, this body of evidence manifests the consequences of “rescue” by purchase from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, antiquities have been looted from archaeological sites, artifacts have been stolen from museums, and/or cultural property criminals have been “taxed” (extorted) by factions in every conflict since the Soviet-Afghan War.Footnote 101 In Pakistan, factional-economic conflict has been financed by the looting of antiquities – for instance, by pseudonymous antiquities trafficker Zaman Khan, who has looted and sold antiquities in order to employ and arm a force that has fought for him in conflicts over other resources for at least 30 years.Footnote 102 Likewise, international terrorist activity has been financed by the transnational Haqqani Network, which is allied with the Taliban, has operated under the protection of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, and has raised funds by trafficking antiquities as well as by other means.Footnote 103
The interconnections of looting and smuggling with political violence and organized crime are demonstrated in one case that spans this transnational conflict zone. According to the United States’s felony arrest warrant for Indian antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, German museum director Marianne Yaldız, “travel[led]” to South-Central Asia “in search of new acquisitions” from around 1993 and, potentially, until 2006. In a letter to Kapoor on 10 December 1996, Yaldız justified her collaboration with him by asserting that there was an “essential difference” between the Museum of Indian Art in Berlin, which she directed, and the Art of the Past Gallery in New York, which he directed.Footnote 104 The museum was “try[ing] to save the pre-islamic [sic] culture of Afghanistan and [it] plan[ned] to give everything back to the country … while [the gallery] and the people in Pakistan” were “mak[ing] money out of this political situation.”Footnote 105 In other words, the museum was conducting “rescue” by purchase. According to Informant no. 1 for that arrest warrant, “the people in Pakistan” were Zahid Pervez Butt and his son Zeeshan Butt. Both Butts have been identified as “supply[ing] the international art market with stolen antiquities from countries including, but not limited to, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. … To this day, the Butts supply dealers, auction houses, private clients, and museums worldwide with illegal cultural property.”Footnote 106
In 1995, Yaldız “travelled to Afghanistan” where, according to Informant no. 1, she “selected” looted antiquities “for purchase” from the “local warlord,” Mujahideen Commander Zaman, and she “negotiated excavation rights” with Zaman.Footnote 107 Indeed, in a letter to Kapoor on 12 July 1995, Yaldız explained that she had “visited a Buddhist site where Zaman’s forces were excavating,”Footnote 108 where “Zaman offered to stop digging at the site “if [they could] make the offer to [Zaman] to give the money for [their] own excavations and pay [Zaman] some money for his efforts. Then [they would have to] bring the objects out of the country.”Footnote 109 The US Department of Homeland Security “presum[ed]” that Yaldız was negotiating for herself “and her associates, … including Kapoor.”Footnote 110 In the letter to Kapoor on 10 December 1996, Yaldız promised Kapoor that she would “send … the money at once” upon the arrival of the antiquities, which were duly delivered on 27 January 1997.Footnote 111 Informant no. 1, who participated in the transaction, explained that Yaldız was discussing payment upon delivery through Kapoor, by the Butts, for the antiquities that had been looted by Zaman that she had selected in person.Footnote 112 Altogether, then, this transaction manifests looting by armed forces in Afghanistan, smuggling by organized criminals in Pakistan, laundering through a private business in the United States, and collection by a public institution in Germany, where the fact of conflict financing was known by both the gallery and the museum and was considered to be a morally acceptable price for “rescue” by purchase.
Incentivization of “art-napping” for ransom in the Netherlands, financing of political violence in Ukraine, and weakening of international support for insecure democracies
As noted, whether they are victims or other interested parties, some people defend or attempt the provision of assets in exchange for illicit cultural property from – which they would not describe as the purchase of illicit cultural property from (or the payment of ransom to) – violent political organizations. And such “rescue” is practiced – or attempted – for illicit cultural property from countries in the global North/West as well as in the global South/East.
For instance, 24 Dutch paintings were stolen from a museum in the Netherlands in 2005. The theft from the museum and the smuggling out of the Netherlands are still unsolved. The paintings resurfaced in Ukraine in 2015. According to volunteer fighter Borys Humeniuk, they were found “in a private mansion, owned by a member of ousted Ukrainian president Yanukoych’s inner circle.”Footnote 113
According to private investigator Arthur Brand, they were offered through Humeniuk, “the deputy commander of the OUN battalion,” the ultranationalist militia (also characterized as the volunteer battalion) of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).Footnote 114 Again according to Brand, the resurfacing of the paintings can ultimately be traced to Oleh Tyahnybok, an ultranationalist who was a member of parliament before the revolution and still is the leader of the far-right extremist or “fascist” movement Svoboda, and Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, a nationalist who has shifted between right-wing politics and the security service before and since the revolution.Footnote 115 Svoboda has decried the accusation as “defamatory.”Footnote 116 Nalyvaichenko has “categorically denie[d] [it].”Footnote 117 And it is extremely difficult to corroborate key claims in all narratives, some of which have included inaccurate claims that have been asserted with ambiguous evidence, all of which have been asserted without concrete evidence by parties with vested interests in the narrative of the case. For instance, Humeniuk, who had been buying paintings and “making money by selling paintings on the art market for the [previous] 10 years,”Footnote 118 had actually been discharged from the OUN on suspicion of (unrelated) “theft and abuse of power”Footnote 119 and had rejoined the fascist Azov Battalion, while the OUN had been dissolved and absorbed into the 81st Airborne BrigadeFootnote 120 and the 93rd Mechanized BrigadeFootnote 121 of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Humeniuk himself has made various claims, such as that the paintings were discovered by a unit of spies and saboteurs from the free areas in the occupied territories. As reported, it is “not convincing” that spies and saboteurs took a newspaper from the free areas with them into “enemy territory,” yet the “proof-of-life” photo set a Ukrainian newspaper alongside one of the paintings.Footnote 122
At one point, it was even possible to assert that there were “no [material] indications” that the paintings were or ever had been “located … in Ukraine.”Footnote 123 Yet, on 14 April 2016, the Ukrainian Security Service recovered four paintings. It had conducted a four-month-long operation that spanned the country and affirmed that the theft had been “organised by one of the international criminal groups, which included natives of Donbass [організувало одне з міжнаціональних кримінальних угруповань, до якого входили вихідці з Донбасу].”Footnote 124 As further explained, “[s]ome [other] paintings are in the occupied territories and in the Russian Federation [частина картин знаходяться на окупованих територіях і в Російській Федерації].”Footnote 125 “After several meetings” with Brand, on 30 May 2016, a Ukrainian citizen surrendered possession of one painting to the embassy of the Netherlands in Ukraine.Footnote 126
Westfries Museum declared that its “first priority” was “to get the art back before it disappear[ed] again” or got “even more” damaged.Footnote 127 Although the offer was not accepted, the municipality of Hoorn, through Brand, did offer assets to the militia in exchange for the artworks.Footnote 128 The museum appeared to recognize the structure of the operation and the politesse around refusing to pay a ransom since it insisted that it did not engage in “negotiations” or “dialogue” while simultaneously recognizing that Brand had engaged in “dialogue in [its] name”;Footnote 129 it insisted that it “refused to pay [the militia] money for [its] very own paintings” while simultaneously recognizing that it “offered [the militia] 50,000 euros as a ‘finder’s fee’ – and as a token of our gratitude.”Footnote 130 It was further insinuated that the militia might have exchanged, or might later “exchange,” the paintings “for arms” from operators in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and/or Afghanistan.Footnote 131 No evidence was presented, and none has since emerged. It also appears to contradict the assertion that the militia was only an intermediary. Nonetheless, this assertion was used to underpin the further assertion that the paintings would then “be lost for ever.”Footnote 132 If – indeed, as – the museum and its intermediary believed that the militia was engaged in an “ongoing quest for arms” and that the militia would have exchanged the paintings for arms, the museum and its intermediary must have believed that the “token of gratitude,” which would have been exchanged for the paintings, would itself in turn have been exchanged for arms.Footnote 133
Like the other cases, this case has far-reaching consequences. According to foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin, it has become a “critical” diplomatic problem for Ukraine.Footnote 134 The saga – “from a corrupt Yanukovych ally acquiring the stolen art to a nationalist militia trying to negotiate its handover for a fat ransom”Footnote 135 – gives the impression of “very un-European lawlessness,” which has weakened support in the Netherlands for an agreement of association between the European Union and Ukraine, even though one of the benefits of an agreement would have been the consolidation of the rule of law.Footnote 136 The disclosure of the Ukrainian Security Service’s operation “could have affected the results of the vote in favour of Ukraine, but would [have] disrupt[ed] the continuation of the operation [могло вплинути на результати голосування, але зірвати продовження операції]” to recover the paintings and return them to the Netherlands.Footnote 137 Thus, the operation was kept secret, and, although the referendum was obviously a far more complex decision-making process for Dutch voters, the vote went against Ukraine.Footnote 138
“Rescue” from the market creates a market for antiquities that can be “rescued,” such as the publicly documented, “portableised” artworks from churches in Cyprus,Footnote 139 which could not have been sold to private collectors on the open market and were stolen in order to be ransomed back to the Republic of Cyprus.Footnote 140 Furthermore, the policy creates a mechanism for the laundering and legalization of illicit assets. For example, illicit antiquities in Cyprus were bought by private collectors in accordance with a secret government policy, then legalized through amnesty,Footnote 141 including antiquities that were seemingly acquired from areas under government control yet registered in collections of antiquities that had been “rescued” from areas outside government control.Footnote 142 Furthermore, they were originally bought by formally approved collectors in Cyprus to prevent their disappearance into the international market or by informally assisted collectors abroad to prevent their dispersal across the international market, yet some antiquities in Cyprus have since been sold into the international market,Footnote 143 and some antiquities abroad have since been dispersed across the international market.Footnote 144 Illicit antiquities from Pakistan have been laundered through their characterization as beneficiaries of rescue from looting in Afghanistan. Illicit antiquities from Afghanistan have been laundered through their characterization as beneficiaries of rescue from destruction by iconoclasts rather than as desirable commodities that were acquired in a process that itself intensified the destruction of knowledge by intensifying looting. Potential conflict antiquities from Cambodia have been laundered through their characterization as beneficiaries of rescue from destruction by iconoclasts, wherein the identified iconoclasts were one of the violent political organizations that may have profited from their trafficking.Footnote 145
This evidence, then, prompts reflection upon the fact that the US Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) instructs museums in North America that they “can and should” offer “safe haven” to cultural objects that are “in danger of damage, destruction or looting as a result of war, terrorism or natural disasters.”Footnote 146 While the AAMD advises that the arrangements should be “loans” of objects that would be “returned,” these loans might facilitate the transfer of looted antiquities to the United States and lend false legitimacy to the handling of objects without secure collecting histories.Footnote 147 While a spokeswoman for the AAMD insists that museums should “not … violate the rights of lawful owners or cause the museum to be involved in any legal [sic – illegal] or unethical activity,” which would seem to encompass the handling of looted antiquities, a former chair of the AAMD’s antiquities task force positively argues that “the protocols will ‘help rescue looted works that might otherwise disappear into the art market’.”Footnote 148 Indeed, according to these protocols, cultural objects that are “in danger of damage, destruction or looting” specifically include ones that have already been “looted and brought into a country such as the United States.”Footnote 149 Although an object may not be declared immediately, no work of cultural significance from any country in crisis has been declared publicly in the five years since the declaration.Footnote 150
“Rescue” by purchase in contexts of political violence
The Schøyen Collection may be the exemplar of the problem – from the automatic consequences of all such actions, to the potential consequences of such actions during conflicts and other crises, to the common responses of state, society, and academia, which often begin with the facilitation of harm and end with the failure to restore justice. The collection includes illicit antiquities from Afghanistan, which were misrepresented as “rescued” antiquities from Taliban territory but which were extracted from a conflict zone where all of the warring parties trafficked antiquities or racketeered traffickers to finance their violence. It also includes illicit antiquities from Pakistan, which were misrepresented as “rescued” antiquities from Afghanistan but which were extracted from a conflict zone where warlords looted antiquities to finance violence within Pakistan and elements within and outside state structures controlled or supported by traffickers or racketeers in Afghanistan.Footnote 151 How many other buyers have used “rescue” to excuse any illicit purchases of antiquities from conflict zones? How many have used conflict to excuse any illicit purchases of antiquities that resemble antiquities from conflict zones?
It is known that, in the last 20 years, violent political organizations have profited from antiquities from societies where state and/or non-state actors have experimented with “rescue” by purchase, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and violent political organizations in other territories, such as Ukraine, have attempted to traffic art from societies where actors have attempted to experiment with “rescue” by purchase, such as the Netherlands. Willingly or unwillingly, rescue can constitute a funding mechanism for human rights abusers.Footnote 152
“Rescue” by purchase in crisis
Although it was initially refused by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in order to preserve cultural property inside Afghanistan, after which artifacts of the un-Islamic past were destroyed by the Taliban, the Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile in Switzerland has since been established as a UNESCO-approved refuge for endangered cultural property outside the country.Footnote 153 The museum receives sometimes-anonymous donations of Afghan cultural property, which may have been bought in order to be donated by “rescuers.” However, according to its contract with UNESCO, the museum does “not acquire objects on the market (i.e., by commercial transactions).”Footnote 154 Thus, it demonstrates that rescue without purchase is possible.
If the international community accepts the “rescue” by purchase of cultural property from zones of crisis and conflict, it is not clear how such a policy would or could be implemented. According to the arguments of its advocates, the rescuers would apparently (and conveniently) assume that their money “likely” went to refugees or small-scale traffickers. Manifestly, they would not know that their money had not gone to paramilitaries, terrorists, or state criminals. Advocates even appear to disagree over whether buyers should avoid financing ISIS or whether they should directly finance ISIS (or any other iconoclastic force) in the hope that it would sell, instead of destroy, monuments. It is not clear why it would be acceptable to finance other politically motivated armed groups. In any event, in order for such endeavors to function, states would have to collaborate with buyers, and therein with sellers, as states would have to choose not to police the activity even while the purchasers publicly state that the activity involves criminal acts (or play language games by claiming that the delivery of financial assets is not connected to the reception of cultural assets).
With respect to Syria, it is not clear how buyers would distinguish between, for example, coins that had profited ISIS, the al-Nusra Front, the Assad regime that rules the Syrian Arab Republic, the Free Syrian Army, and any number of other groups. After all, Palmyra alone has been looted under the control of the Free Syrian Army, the Assad regime, and ISIS. Similarly, it is not clear how buyers would identify antiquities from territories that were outside ISIS territory, but at risk of ISIS conquest, in order to rescue those antiquities without financing ISIS at the same time. After all, dealers and collectors already appear to struggle to categorize their objects more specifically than “Mesopotamian” or “Near Eastern.”
It is not clear how buyers would categorize objects and buildings that were at significant risk of iconoclasm and objects and buildings that were not at significant risk of iconoclasm. It is also not clear how buyers would rescue the most prominent targets for iconoclasm unless they arranged looting to order or theft to order. And it is not clear how suppliers could operate on the ground unless their systematic dismantling of entire monuments was protected as a constituent element of the rescue process. All of this would require the bought-or-bartered protection of the local military power. Ultimately, “rescue” by purchase appears incoherent, counter-productive, and dangerous for the victimized communities that it is supposed to support.