Late last week, the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced the formation of its first antiquities trafficking unit. As Henri Neuendorf of artnet News reports, the unveil came during a repatriation ceremony for three ancient statues recovered by New York officials, which were looted from Lebanon during the country's civil war in 1970s.
The formation of the unit, composed of lawyers, a paralegal and a team of antiquities trafficking analysts, comes during an uptick in the illegal trade in antiquities. According to a recent report by the Antiquities Coalition, this alarming phenomenon has been bolstered by the terrorist group ISIS's systematic looting of archaeological sites, in addition to the proliferation of illegal sellers popping up on social media and retail platforms.
Many of these looted antiquities end up in the world’s major art and artifacts markets, which is why New York is on alert. “Since 2012, my Office has recovered several thousand trafficked antiquities collectively valued at more than $150 million, including the beautiful stolen statues being returned to the Lebanese Republic today,” district attorney Cyrus Vance says in a statement. “When you put a price tag on these artifacts, however, it is all too easy to forget that these are not just valuable collector’s items—these are rare, celebrated remnants of entire civilizations’ culture and history."
Colleen Long and Verena Dobnik at the Associated Press report that New York prosecutors have worked on several major cases in the last year alone. While some cases were outright looting or fraud, in many instances the origins of the antiquities were obscured or hidden, leading collectors to unknowingly purchase them. In October, for instance, prosecutors seized an Iranian limestone bas-relief from a London dealer at an art fair. They have also seized a wine glass dating to the 4th century B.C. and a fish plate being auctioned at Christie’s.
Not everyone is happy with the way the way investigations have been conducted so far. In 2016, during Asia Week New York, prosecutors raided several galleries, seizing what they believe to be looted artifacts. Gallery owners were upset that instead of speaking with them privately, law enforcement chose to publicly seize the objects.
Neuendorf reports that the new unit will be led by assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, who has led investigations into looted antiquities from Iraq and has been at the forefront of recent antiquities cases. At the event on Friday, Angel M. Melendez, the special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in New York City, spoke to the importance of ongoing efforts to recover cultural heritage. "The trafficking of cultural property and art is a lucrative criminal enterprise that transnational criminal organizations seek to partake of to make a profit," Melendez said. "Nonetheless, the cultural significance and worth of these returned treasures is beyond any monetary value.”