Understanding the Trafficking of Cultural Heritage

The Illicit Antiquities Trade

Cultural heritage is being stolen and illegally exported on a massive scale. While black market figures are difficult to estimate, traffickers are thought to earn billions annually. However, the impact of the trade cannot simply be measured quantitatively, but must also be measured by its cultural impact. The following pages examine the wide ranging impact of looting.

Nature, Structure, and Prevention

Explore the nature of the trade, its structure, and strategies for prevention.



The illicit antiquities trade is an international trafficking network that exports stolen art and artifacts from source country to meet demand in market countries....

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The antiquities trade is composed of diverse participants filling specialist roles within a network, which each transaction guided by an underlying structure....

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Understanding the structure of the antiquities trade allows for the development of specialized protection and deterrence plans for each country....

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Trafficking Spans the Globe

Looting in conflict areas or impoverished regions supply the market's demand for antiquities.

Looting has plagued Egypt for years, but recent unrest following the revolution has led to widespread illegal digging and brazen museum theft.

Greece has campaigned to recover its stolen art; however, looting and trafficking has increased during the economic crisis.

A wealth of ancient sites are spread throughout Turkey, but its good fortune is also a curse as it is a major source country.

Organized looting gangs in Bulgaria are connected to politicians, police, and customs officials, as well as narcotics, arms, and human trafficking.

Centuries of history in Italy is being illegally excavated and smuggled abroad. Despite high profile busts, looting remains a widespread problem.

The  appearance of a statue of Apollo in Gaza and subsequent confiscation by Hamas raises concerns about the politicalization of cultural heritage.

Albania was home to Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans, but this rich history is under constant threat from looters.

Pakistan is a source, transit, and market country. Antiquities are shipped abroad, but a growing number of military and politicians are now collecting.

A burst of looting in Iraq immediately followed both Gulf Wars. Unemployment soared and subsistence diggers tried looting to put food on the table.

Afghanistan is a major source country following the recent conflict. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are rumored to profit from the trade.

  • Egypt
  • Greece
  • Turkey
  • Bulgaria
  • Italy
  • Gaza
  • Albania
  • Pakistan
  • Iraq
  • Afghanistan

Stages of Transnational Trafficking

Stolen artifacts are transferred through three stages to reach the legal market- looting, smuggling, and laundering- before reaching the fourth and final stage: purchase by a collector or museum. Each stage contains one or more individuals.

Stage 1

Stage 1


  • Risk 95%
  • Earnings 1%
  • Specialization 5%
Stage 2

Stage 2


  • Risk 98%
  • Earnings 10%
  • Specialization 40%
Stage 3

Stage 3


  • Risk 10%
  • Earnings 90%
  • Specialization 80%
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