Illicit antiquities, some pilfered from war zones where jihadist groups operate, are increasingly finding their way online where they are being snapped up by unknowing buyers and further driving the rampant plunder of archaeological sites.
These internet sales are spurring a vicious cycle: increasing demand for antiquities, which drives the looting, producing a greater supply of artifacts, which further increases demand.
While global auction sales of art and antiquities declined in 2015—falling as much as 11 percent—online sales skyrocketed by 24 percent, reaching a staggering $3.27 billion dollars. According to Forbes, “This suggests that the art market may not be 1 cooling, exactly, but instead shifting to a new sales model, e-commerce.”
How can an online buyer guarantee that a potential purchase is not stolen property, a “blood antiquity,” or a modern forgery? The best protection is to demand evidence of how the object reached the market in the first place. However, as in more traditional sales, most antiquities on the internet lack any such documentation.
Online shoppers therefore have limited means of knowing what they are buying or from whom. This is a particularly serious concern given the industrial scale looting now taking place in Iraq and Syria, which the United Nations Security Council warns is financing Daesh (commonly known as ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State), al Qaeda, and their affiliates.
Despite the clear implications for both cultural preservation and national security, so far public policy has completely failed to regulate the online antiquities trade. This is particularly true in the United States, which remains the world’s largest art market and a major center for the internet market in antiquities. American inaction has 3 made it impossible to combat the problem globally, and moreover, is in great contrast to positive steps taken by other “demand” nations like Germany.
This paper offers practical solutions to help better protect good faith consumers from purchasing looted or fake antiquities—while also protecting online businesses from facilitating criminal behavior. After briefly reviewing what is known of the organization and operation of the internet market in antiquities, it considers some possible cooperative responses aimed at educating consumers and introducing workable regulation. These responses draw upon the German example, as well as recent criminological thinking about what might constitute effective regulation. Finally, the paper makes seven policy recommendations, which while geared towards the American market, are applicable to any country where antiquities are bought and sold online.