The conflict antiquities trade: a historical overview

The International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods has published a book on countering the illicit traffic in cultural goods: the global challenge of protecting the world’s heritage (handled by France Desmarais, Raphaël Roig, Susanne Poverlein, Aedin Mac Devitt and Mélanie Foehn). It gave me the opportunity to provide a historical overview of the conflict antiquities trade.

The book is already available to read on ISSUU. [Update: a (correctly-numbered) preprint copy of the text is available for download.]

Introduction to the conflict antiquities trade

The public and professionals alike have been sensitized to the problem of conflict antiquities through the Syrian civil war. The history of the trade is sometimes traced as far back as Iraq, Afghanistan or Cambodia. Yet, such plunder forms a piece with far older programmes of State expropriation. Complex structures for antiquities trafficking by armed groups and repressive regimes, and sophisticated markets that consume violently extracted cultural assets, have existed for more than a hundred years (Hardy, 2015: 21).

Using examples from the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Bolshevik Russia and the Soviet Union, the Nazi Empire, Communist East Germany, China and Cambodia, I show how conflict antiquities trafficking emerged as a legalised, bureaucratised state crime of expropriation; and how such expropriation functioned both as a way to finance political violence and as a constituent element of political violence (in the form of genocide, ethnocide and politicide).

Conclusion of the historical overview

A victim of Communist East Germany’s expropriation, collector Friedhelm Beuker observed that conflict antiquities remained ‘smeared with blood, everyone knows that, including the dealers here in the West’. Such bloodstained assets have been, and continue to be, consumed by markets around the world. This century-long history demonstrates that situation-to-situation regulation does not work and that the market will not regulate itself. It needs to be strictly regulated to reduce the flow of finances to human rights abusers (Hardy, 2015: 28).

In the near future, I hope to publish a somewhat systematic review of conflict antiquities trafficking by para-state, deep state, shadow state and anti-state forces. It will include another example of “official” state crime (in Cuba), to reintroduce the problem. And it will discuss the shift from state plunder and expropriation towards non-state looting and extortion (which, I believe, emerged during colonial states’ small wars and exploded through the Cold War).


Hardy, S A. 2015: “The conflict antiquities trade: A historical overview”. In Desmarais, F (Ed.). Countering the illicit traffic in cultural goods: The global challenge of protecting the world’s heritage, 21-31. Paris: International Council of Museums (ICOM). [PDF]

Contents of countering the illicit traffic in cultural goods: the global challenge of protecting the world’s heritage

Introduction by France Desmarais (ICOM)

Section I. On the market: cui bono?

01. Dealers, collectors, provenances and rights: searching for traces by Günther Wessel
02. The internet market in antiquities by Neil Brodie
03. The conflict antiquities trade: a historical overview by Sam Hardy

Section II. From the source: networks and routes for stolen objects

04. Illicit cultural property from Latin America: looting, trafficking, and sale by Donna Yates
05. Documenting looting activities in post-2011 Egypt by Monica Hanna
06. Illicit traffic in cultural property in Lebanon by Assaad Seif
07. Archaeological site looting in Syria and Iraq: a review of the evidence by Brian Daniels and Katharyn Hanson
08. The lasting impact of United States vs. Cambodian sculpture by Tess Davis
09. Illicit trafficking in cultural goods in South East Europe: ‘fiat lux!’ by Augustin Lazăr
10. A fight yet to be waged: underwater heritage protection by Michel l’Hour

Section III. Implementing solutions: legal instruments and practical tools

11. Ratification and implementation of international conventions to fight illicit trafficking of cultural property by Sophie Delepierre and Marina Schneider
12. The protection of cultural property in EU law: status quo and future perspectives by Robert Peters
13. Do we need a Kimberley Process for the illicit antiquities trade? by Simon Mackenzie
14. Military protection of cultural property by Laurie Rush
15. Museum security in French museums: an overview by Guy Tubiana
16. Back to Kabul: case studies of successful collaboration by St John Simpson

3 Responses to “The conflict antiquities trade: a historical overview”

  1. Reblogged this on HARN Weblog and commented:
    Important publication from Sam



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: