Cultural Racketeering and Why it Matters: Robbing the World of History

10/01/2013 05:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Many of us are familiar with crimes committed by organized gangs, from drug running, the weapons trade, to the sex trade. However, there is one kind of crime, the looting and trade of antiquities that is on par with these abhorrent black market businesses, yet seldom discussed. The illegal trade in art and antiquities or cultural racketeering is one of the top five most profitable illegal global businesses. It ravages cultural icons and deprives local communities of their heritage. If we don't take a stand, we are not just allowing these criminals to steal our common history, but also the future economic potential of these communities.

First, it's important to define cultural racketeering.

Cultural racketeering is a term that the Capitol Archaeological Institute coined to describe when organized criminal networks traffic in illicit art and antiquities. Looting sites for their riches is an ancient pastime, which has now become a global black market business facilitated by social media and global transportation networks It generates billions of dollars, and has a devastating impact on communities on a local and global scale.

Since cultural racketeering is a global problem, it requires a global solution.

Who is being affected by cultural racketeering?

Countries with the most to lose are often hardest hit by cultural racketeers. The remains of ancient civilizations, from the Pharaohs to the Song Dynasty to the Incas, are scattered across many developing countries. Many of these countries are in crisis, whether economic, political or humanitarian, which leads to a break down in law and order.

As a result of the political instability caused by the Arab Spring, for example, there have been coordinated and systematic attacks against archaeological museums and sites in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

In Latin America, Peru and Guatemala - both suffering from economic crisis - have been subject to significant looting.

Protection for cultural heritage is a recent concept in China. Many of China's ancient sites and museums haven fallen prey to looters.

Demand is high for these stolen objects. Artifacts from these ancient civilizations are highly prized by collectors and museums, particularly those in developed countries.

Billions of dollars are at stake here.

The thieves are robbing these countries of their past as well as stealing from their economic future. Many of these nations rely heavily on the tourism trade to generate jobs and economic growth - and cultural heritage tourism is a key component of that trade.

Now, what are the exact numbers? It's hard to tell. Credible numbers are tough to gleam for the illicit trade in antiquities. Unlike trafficking in cocaine or weapons, it is difficult to determine the legitimate--or illegitimate--nature of an item once it leaves its country of origin. An ancient statue is either "licit" or "illicit" based on its ownership and not by its nature, like a drug. These are priceless pieces that aren't as keenly regulated as they could or should be.

Cultural racketeering, we do know, is one of the top five most profitable black market crimes. In Egypt alone, based on initial research, we have a conservative estimate of $2 billion dollars in looted antiquities since the January 2011 Revolution.

The Syrian Ministry of Antiquities has estimated losses of a similar amount, $2 billion, since the start of their civil war. Rebel forces have admitted to looting sites and selling antiquities overseas as a means of raising funds to buy arms.

Who is looting?

Individuals living in nearby communities typically conduct looting at the local level. Yet organized distribution networks - many linked to organized criminal networks engaged in other types of black activities - act as middlemen to smuggle these artifacts out of the country to where demand exists. We are conducting additional research to identify the leaders in these networks.

Why should we care?

Antiquities theft - or cultural racketeering - steals our common cultural history while robbing community's of their economic future. These thieves take advantage of uncertain circumstances to steal the few valuable assets that many countries' treasure - their heritage.

In many of the countries worst hit - Egypt, Syria, Peru, Guatemala - the tourism industry is a mainstay of their economy. And much of that tourism is based on visits to archaeological sites such as the pyramids in Egypt or Manchu Picchu in Peru. Stealing from these sites reduces their value and has a negative impact on tourism, which sustains these countries' economy.

What can we do about it?

The Capitol Archaeological Institute is leading an initiative to raise the profile on cultural racketeering. We encourage people to think about what they can do to protect heritage in their own communities, to stop purchasing artifacts with unclear provenance, and to support cultural entrepreneurship, which helps build capacity to protect archaeological sites in countries under attack from cultural racketeering.

Our purpose is to work with the local communities in countries in crisis - as well as the governments - to build capacity against the organized looting. In addition to the obvious need for security, simple steps such as creating national inventories of all items excavated

How can you act now?
1. Learn more about the global issue of cultural racketeering.
2. Support programs in your own local communities as there are many archaeological sites without adequate protection even in the United States.
3. Give your support to the ongoing efforts of organizations like the CAI and its partners to further the research of these important issues.