At Large  May 12, 2020  Chandra Noyes

Antiquities Looters Are Making Use of COVID Chaos

Kelly Lacy

As the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow, more and more people see their livelihoods affected. Some of these folks will inevitably turn to crime to make ends meet. In April, a thief made off with a Van Gogh painting, stolen from a shuttered Dutch museum. In North Africa and the Middle East, looters of ancient sites are taking advantage of distracted authorities to nab more historical treasures.

The ATHAR Project (Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research), a group of anthropologists that tracks the illicit sale of antiquities online, is reporting an increase in activity on the Facebook groups they monitor.

In a 2019 report, the group uncovered ninety-five Facebook groups with over 1.9 million members who traded tips for looting ancient sites and attempted to sell their wares.

the athar project

Screenshots of antiquities offered for sale on Facebook

The ATHAR Project is comprised of "experts digging into the digital underworld of transnational trafficking, terrorism financing, and organized crime." The project was formed in part in response to conflicts like the on-going war in Syria and the unrest of the Arab Spring, which ISIL and low-level thieves take advantage of. The chaos and destruction of Syria's civil war has resulted in the mass looting of precious antiquities, as well as the all-out destruction of some of humanity's greatest historic sites.

Facebook says they shut down forty-nine groups selling antiquities last year, but the notoriously unregulated site struggles to stop all illicit activity.

The ATHAR Project recently shared videos taken from Facebook showing thieves at work, who may risk their lives to excavate buried sites.

the athar project

Screenshot a mosaic offered for sale on Facebook

The items for sale are most often coins and ceramics, though mosaics and full and partial mummies have been offered.

These precious objects will join a black market of goods that could eventually enter the mainstream. Some of them may be sold to unwitting buyers, like the President of Hobby Lobby, who recently had to return works he purchased of dubious provenance. Others may be kept by collectors or used in international money laundering schemes conducted by terrorist and crime organizations.

The looting of these objects represents a major loss to the cultural heritage of these nations, and to humanity as a whole. Untrained thieves damage goods and sites as they excavate them, and are unable to properly care for these precious objects.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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