Lust for Loot: Collecting Is Driving the Demand for Plunder

Last October, a story caught my attention. The Green family, best known for owning the craft store Hobby Lobby, was under investigation for the “illicit importation of cultural heritage from Iraq.” According to The Daily Beast, US customs officers had seized a shipment of several hundred cuneiform tablets purchased by the family in 2011, for display in their soon-to-open Museum of the Bible. Sources say that the shipping label described the tablets as “hand-crafted clay tiles” and valued them at around $300—an inaccuracy possibly angled to let the tablets sail through a less rigorous customs process.

People can be Gollum; they want the precious. There’s a desire to own, to hold, to make a piece of the past belong to you. Because of that, collectors sometimes don’t look critically enough at how the objects they’re buying are obtained. Some collectors are driven by owning a particular type of object, others by owning objects from a particular culture—and a big problem arises when people purchase objects obtained illegally. Sometimes, it’s an honest mistake. But sometimes, it’s willful ignorance.

Sarah Parcak approaches two looting pits in South Dashur, Egypt. When a tomb is looted, we lose the context of all the objects inside. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Parcak
Here I am, approaching two looting pits in South Dashur, Egypt. When a tomb is looted, we lose the context of all the objects inside. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Parcak

The Recent Rise of Looting

This month’s National Geographic magazine cover story looks at how looters are stealing our collective history. It shows how an artifact—like an ancient sarcophagus—can be smuggled out of Egypt through a circuitous route and end up in the hands of a collector in the United States. In this moment when terrorist organizations are looting for profit across the Middle East, not doing your due diligence might mean that you are aiding and abetting criminal activity.

My colleagues and I published a detailed look at looting across Egypt between the years of 2002 to 2013. We found that looting levels doubled in 2009-2010, on the heels of global recession, then doubled again following the Arab Spring. Looting is an economic issue—it’s something people turn to in desperation. It’s not looting that drives demand for antiquities, but the other way around. In 2002, the total value of Egyptian antiquities sold at Sotheby’s auction house was $3 million. In 2010, it soared to $13 million. We’ve now entered the age of “blood antiquities,”  and not asking the right questions is no longer excusable.

South Dashur, as seen by satellite in 2014. While this site was virtually unlooted before 2011, the site is now pockmarked with looting pits. Photo: Digital Globe
South Dashur, as seen by satellite in 2014. While this site was virtually unlooted before 2011, the site is now pockmarked with looting pits. Photo: Digital Globe

Experts are asking big questions about how the Green family has obtained objects for the Museum of the Bible. The family has been advised by top archaeologists on the proper procedures for purchasing objects—and still, that shipment of tablets was mislabeled. What interests me most in this case is that customs made this information public. I suspect that the family might be made an example of, because they’re so high profile.

Antiquities and the Law

The U.S. government is getting serious about antiquities. Just last week, President Obama signed into law a bill to stem the antiquities market. The bill will enforce emergency import restrictions for objects from Syria, and will create a new position—a U.S. Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection, which hasn’t existed until now. This bill sailed through the House of Representatives last summer and through the Senate this spring, both almost unanimously—which says something in this political climate. There are a lot of us that helped with testifying and providing documentation to the staffers, and when I helped with informal briefings, representatives on both sides of the aisle showed deep interest and asked great questions. This bill is a big step forward. It sends a strong message that our heritage is important.

Other countries are working on this too. Last October, the British government announced a £3 Iraqi emergency heritage management project to help protect the country’s antiquities. Germany’s culture minister is working to update its laws. And UNESCO is training customs officials in the European Union to better detect looted objects.

A tomb in South Dashur that looters have raided. You can see Arabic script on the limestone blocks outside the tomb. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Parcak
A tomb in South Dashur that looters have raided. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Parcak

We need to figure out to what extent looted objects are reaching the West. Archaeologists have so many questions: Is this similar to what we see in the art world, where wealthy individuals have key objects in mind and make that known to people who can make it happen? Are antiquities being sold through the darknet?

A New Future for the Past

As archaeologists, engaging with collectors is important. A year and a half ago, I testified in front of the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee when Egypt requested import restrictions. I was speaking as a scientist with large-scale data on looting across the country, but there were also coin collectors there who were concerned that new laws would inhibit their work. I went over and talked to the collectors, to try to understand their point of view. The reality is: we need to create safe spaces for these dialogues. If they could present their concerns and we could present ours, we could find that thin line where we can work together.

As archaeologists, the idea of taking and owning is anathema. But the Hobby Lobby case shows that archaeologists need to do a better job of listening—and of educating people on what careless purchases might be funding. The bottom line: it will take listening on both our parts to change this.

Sarah Parcak poses at the Brooklyn Museum before TED Youth. While museums tend to be careful about looking at the history of the objects they display, private collectors are sometimes not as discerning. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED
Sarah Parcak poses at the Brooklyn Museum before TED Youth. While museums tend to be careful about looking at the history of the objects they display, private collectors are sometimes not as discerning. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED


How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History (From the June 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.)

Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist, and the winner of the 2016 TED Prize. With this $1 million prize, she’s building a citizen science platform that will allow anyone, anywhere, to join in the search for ancient sites. Sign up for updates on this project, Global Xplorer°, which will launch in the fall. And stay tuned to Explorers Journal, where Sarah will be sharing her thoughts on archaeology and the evolution of her TED Prize wish.



  1. Ivan Macquisten
    May 23, 2016, 1:02 pm

    I am a journalist and strategic communications specialist who advises both the UK-based Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) and the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA). Three things you need to know about them first:
    • The trade is as horrified by the destruction and iconoclasm as anyone else and shares a common cause in wishing to defeat it.
    • The trade has more incentive than anyone else to stop the crooks because of the damage they risk causing the reputation of the legitimate trade.
    • We will not find a workable solution unless all parties to the debate work together, including the trade. (Law enforcement, Politicians, Academics, Archaeologists, Curators).
    The trade associations expect to have to provide primary source evidence for any substantive claim of fact that they make as they do not expect to be taken on trust for anything they say, especially in this current climate in relation to Iraq and Syria.
    It is an irony that many of the people in the world of archaeology and academia who demand detailed documented provenance for every object offered on the market to show its legitimacy do not abide by the same standards of evidence when they make serious allegations of wrongdoing against the trade and others. This creates an inaccurate picture of the issues and where the problems lie. If they have evidence, then they should produce it. I have been astonished at the lack of due diligence applied to the testimony put before The Senate and Congress in drawing up the new Bill that President Obama has now signed off. Similar shortcomings have plagued the debates at UNESCO, within the German parliament and in the UK, all of whom have sought to change policy on the strength of the misguided information they have heard. There is no accurate picture at all of the level of looting taking place in Syria and Iraq, a fact now widely accepted even by those who take an anti-trade position, yet senior politicians and others in the US and elsewhere continue to quote grossly exaggerated figures to support their arguments when these figures have already been publicly and widely discredited.
    For the most part, the leading trade associations are entirely ignored in this debate, while governments and NGOs consult with academics and archaeologists, yet it is legitimate trade activity that suffers. We should be targeting the criminals instead.
    Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry put up a reward of $5m for information that led to the disruption of the financing of ISIL with regards to everything from oil to antiquities. How many applications have there been for reward money linked to antiquities and how successful have they been? So far we have heard nothing. How many arrests and convictions have there been in the US related to material that can be shown to have come from ISIL’s antiquities programme? We have yet to hear of a single case. However, the authorities have widely publicised raids in New York relating to material allegedly looted, stolen or illegally exported from South East Asia. Such publicity acts as a deterrent to wrongdoers and shows that the authorities are doing their job. Where is the similar publicity campaign for items linked to Syria and Iraq? In late April, the Art and Antiques Unit in the UK’s London-based police force confirmed that they had had “no referrals to support the claim that the London art market is experiencing an upsurge in artefacts emanating from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq”. This has not stopped anti-trade campaigners from claiming otherwise, despite them being entirely unable to provide any evidence to support their claims. On May 13, Washington-based website Stars and Stripes reported that the director of Syria’s antiquities agency, Maamoun Abdulkarim, had confirmed that “99% of all 300,000 objects in our collections have been saved”. He also said of Palmyra: “At least 80 percent of the sites are undamaged and several more can be completely rebuilt”. The report continued that “Unlike the situation with Iraqi antiquities, which flooded markets a decade ago, not many artifacts from Syria have shown up in traditional centers like Paris, Brussels or London, experts say”. Abdulkarim attributed this to a greater sensitivity to stolen artifacts in the international community since the experience with Iraq in the past decade, and to the realization that many of these may be fakes.
    I do not like it when the media refer to unnamed ‘experts’, but if the director of the Syrian antiquities agency paints a very different picture from what campaigners in the West are saying, and he has the evidence in front of him, should we not be asking more questions?
    Both the ADA and IADAA are working closely with government and international law enforcement to help target the right problems in the search for solutions. They conduct a great deal of research in order to establish an accurate picture of what is going on, backed with facts and statistics that give independently verifiable primary source evidence. They have earned a seat at the table in all the major conversations yet continue to be widely ignored. If the international community is serious about finding a workable solution to the current tragedy, then it is time these associations were invited to take part as a matter of course, rather than occasionally included at the last moment as a token gesture.

    I welcome Sarah Parcak’s attitude in advising that “engaging with collectors is important”. Engaging with dealers and auction house specialists is equally important, as is actually listening to what they have to say and taking it seriously.
    We need to stop the criminals, and we need to keep in the forefront of our minds the innocent people who are suffering the most: the peoples of Syria and Iraq. That is why working to an agenda based on facts and accurate information rather than posturing and propaganda is vital.