Understanding the structure of the trade is essential before creating any preventative measures. Several roles within the illicit antiquities trade have been repeated observed, first articulated by Paul Bator in 1982. Bator argues the trade starts with “local diggers, who sell their finds through a black market to intermediaries, who in turn resell to local or foreign dealers” after which the antiquities are sold to collectors. Numerous subsequent scholars have published on these roles, but why these roles are necessary is rarely addressed. What is the empirical basis behind these ubiquitous roles? They are the result of a simple underlying structure formed from  specific geographical, economic, political, and cultural rules. It is this simple network ecosystem that allows for the vast and  diverse population of participants that forms the complexity of the illicit antiquities trade.

Most modern criminal groups are characterized by “fluid network structures rather than more formal hierarchies,” an organizational structure that is particularly well suited for trafficking. Criminal networks are typically composed of interchangeable participants collaborating together when mutually beneficial with limited complexity and no central organization. Participants in criminal networks are not typically career criminals, but are generally rational thinking and otherwise ordinary individuals taking advantage of an opportunity to supplement their income. With no central leadership, each participant is a replaceable cog in a series of criminal relationships analogous to a “plate of spaghetti [where] every piece seems to touch each other, but you are never sure where it all leads.” The flexibility of criminal networks creates a myriad of challenges for law enforcement. Despite the chaotic outward appearance of trafficking webs, criminologists have begun modeling the underlying structure of fluid networks.

Four stages are observable—looter, early stage middleman, late stage middleman, and collector—and more than one individual may occupy a stage.

Stage 1: Looting

Crime in the first stage is characterized by theft from archaeological sites, museums, or cultural centers like churches or mosques. These participants generally use manual labor in public space to steal artifacts, which has limited concealment and makes it is a high-risk job. Despite the risks, this stage has the largest and most diverse population. Participants’ second crime is selling stolen goods to early stage middlemen.

Stage 2: Trafficking

The second stage has the most variable population in terms of skills and, therefore, has connections to other forms of crime. As a multibillion dollar industry with less risk than narcotics or arms, antiquities draw diverse profit-seeking participants, including established crime groups. Researchers seeking connections between antiquities and narcotics, arms, human trafficking, and other illicit commodities should focus on the second stage. Likewise, corruption is almost solely found in this stage, including public officials, police, ambassadors, and customs agents. Violent crime, generally rare, is likewise primarily relegated to this stage when it does occur.

Stage 3: Laundering

The third and fourth stages are characterized by white-collar crimes with few examples of violent or crime group participation. Their absence is largely the result of success being dependent on maintaining a legitimate appearance and specialized knowledge in art history. The third stage is defined by laundering, but crimes also include fraud and tax evasion. 

Stage 4: Purchase

 Crimes in the fourth stage consist of purchasing stolen property, as an unknown percentage of collectors are complicit with dealers. Former J. Paul Getty Museum curator Marion True allegedly used the Fleishmann Collection to launder antiquities, even speaking to Hecht and Medici about areas where the tombaroli were working. Some museum donors knowingly purchase illicit antiquities to launder the artifacts in return for tax write-offs. Each of the four stages is populated by dramatically different participants, with behavior and crimes corresponding to their location within the network structure.This is not to say there are not exceptions; however, as a broad portrait of the trade, sources suggest this framework to be accurate.

Role specialization has been observed in other trafficking networks to fulfill specific tasks, as a higher success rate is found with specialists. Specialization is the result of functional considerations, when one role must interact with another to exploit an opportunity. That is to say, when participants are unable to complete the task themselves, they agree to collaborate and accept a smaller portion of profits in exchange for a higher success rate. This implies that specialization is a function of collaboration and therefore to be expected within networks. Specialist knowledge within antiquities trafficking includes locating sites, transportation, transnational smuggling, laundering, and art history. Assuming that the antiquities trade resembles other trafficking, then specialized knowledge is likely the basis behind role development, reflecting the trade’s network development over time.

Giacomo Medici’s trial and subsequent conviction provided a wealth of information on the trade, which is presented in the seminal work “The Medici Conspiracy.” Local tombaroli looted archaeological sites and Medici purchased artifacts from either the tombaroli or their associates, acting as an early stage middleman. Medici then smuggled the artifacts to his warehouse in Switzerland. Due to relaxed customs laws in the Freeport, Medici could sell the antiquities internationally to dealers in market countries from this transit country. Medici never sold directly to collectors, instead selling the artifacts to dealers, primarily Robert Hecht, who then resold the antiquities. In his role as late stage middleman, Hecht laundered the antiquities onto the licit market to facilitate sales to collectors like the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As the newly legitimized antiquities came to rest in museum cases, the final stage of trafficking ended.

The Achyris phiale demonstrates the variable routes that antiquities can take in certain stages. Sicilian middleman Vincenzo Pappalardo purchased the artifact from an unnamed Sicilian looter. Pappalardo traded it to another well-known Sicilian middleman, Vincenzo Cammarata, who traded it to Hungarian middleman William Veres. After three early stage middlemen, the artifact passed to New York dealer Robert Haber. Haber and Veres falsified documents about the artifact’s history in order to launder it. Haber then transported the gray-market phiale, selling it as an apparently licit item to collector Michael Steinhardt. In this case, Veres and Haber falsified documents in Switzerland, laundering the artifact before arriving in New York.

Laundering requires fabricating an artifact's history. There are numerous cases of late stage middlemen selling artifacts back and forth to each other in auctions to create a false paper trail. Similarly, unscrupulous museums have had rich benefactors purchase artifacts they desire to create a "no questioned asked" donation in exchange for the tax deduction.


Roles are often filled by multiple individuals, as Operation Ghelas illustrates. Eighty-five individuals were indicted in a case of criminal networks smuggling Italian antiquities across several countries. Tombaroli sold looted antiquities to smuggling cells that operated transnationally. Police located four cells that smuggled artifacts from Italy to Switzerland through a large population of participants, including taxi drivers and policemen. From Switzerland a network transported antiquities to Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and United States. Once in the market countries, several late stage middlemen laundered the artifact from seemingly legitimate storefronts and auction houses including at least one notable dealer.

The trade's internal structure is a result of role specialization dictated by physical and cultural limitations placed on participants due to geography, economics, local and international legislation, and cultural views. Three limiting factors emerge that create an unintentional and organically designed four-stage structure through which most trafficked antiquities pass. 

There exists a complex geographical, political, and economic framework that enmeshes antiquities. Antiquities can be distinguished from other trafficking in three regards: Cultural heritage is a finite resource that cannot be cultivated or manufactured, profits increase progressively from source to market, and artifacts must be laundered in order to appear legitimate. While narcotics can be cultivated and arms can be manufactured, antiquities are a finite resource derived solely from looting cultural sites. Looters can be highly skilled at locating sites and knowledgeable about the local landscape, but they often lack the means to transport artifacts out of their immediate region or across international borders. Antiquities are therefore typically transferred to participants with the means and knowledge to transport illicit commodities internationally. In turn, these early stage middlemen lack the knowledge to judge the value of antiquities, including whether artifacts are real or fake, or the ability to appear legitimate to collectors. The first two stages, theft and transport, therefore, have specialized roles of looter and early stage middleman with local knowledge required to extract antiquities from source countries.

Unlike narcotics and arms, antiquities often appear in legitimate sales in source countries. The reasons are economic and cultural. First, a larger purchasing population can be accessed through selling laundered artifacts in legitimate or gray market businesses. Second, collectors generally purchase artifacts as status symbols and therefore objects to be displayed. Symbols require shared experience with peers in order to communicate meaning, which in this case is the owner’s wealth, prestige, or connoisseurship. However, illicit activity typically earns disapproval, the opposite of the desired effect. Collectors therefore specifically purchase artifacts that have been laundered, even when they know the antiquities are looted. This legitimacy concern creates the third stage, where laundering specialists interact with the black market while presenting themselves as legitimate to the public. Legitimacy and art history specialization, both important for the late stage middlemen, is sometimes the result of university education. Late stage middlemen join collectors to form the third and fourth stages, respectively, which operate primarily in market countries.

A single individual typically lacks the capital, mobility, and art history knowledge to act alone. This is not to say that nonspecialists do not attempt to traffic antiquities; however, probability suggests that specialists have a higher success rate, which is precisely why specialization develops and is favored within network structures.

Does the antiquities trade have a hierarchy, like the mafia?

No. Medici's prosecutor described him as part of a hierarchical antiquities organization, so it is a common misunderstanding. The prosecutor made this claim because Italy's laws were design to prosecute mafia members. These laws convicted Medici based on two pieces of evidence:

(1) A tombarolo who referred to a “cordata,” or mafia structure, in reference to the trade.

(2) An organigram which diagrammed the path antiquities took from looters to dealers that created a pyramid of relationships resembling a hierarchy.

However, criminology has determined that a hierarchical structure functions based on three features: (1) participants lower in the hierarchy are subject to a monopoly, (2) long-term agreements, and (3) sanctions. In contrast, the transfer of looted artifacts from tombaroli to early stage middlemen was optional and on an opportunity-to-opportunity basis, fitting with a network structure and not a hierarchy. Tombaroli freely sold artifacts to several early stage middlemen, indicating they had no fear of sanctions, even going so far as attempting to sell fraudulent artifacts.

The most dramatic evidence that the illicit antiquities trade is not hierarchical is how it continues to thrive despite numerous key convictions and deaths. In light of analysis, the tombarolo who used the term “cordata” was apparently using a familiar word rather than an accurate one. Antiquities trafficking fits none of the criteria for a hierarchal structure and scholars studying cultural trafficking have quite rightly rejected hierarchical structures for the illicit antiquities trade.

Large scale trafficking is composed of diverse and loosely connected participants, with interchangeable individuals in the first two stages and a small reoccurring population in the third stage. Interactions generally consist of single exchanges of capital or goods with no promise of long-term agreements or minimum guarantees of a portion of later profits. During interactions participants are motivated based on personal risk and specialization, often with no cognizance of the preceding or proceeding nodes in the network. Sources show that there is no representative type of participant in the first stage, revealing that any individual presented with a profitable opportunity might be inclined to participate. The second stage is composed of interchangeable transporters, often general smugglers that take on antiquities shipments on an opportunity to opportunity basis. The third stage has the smallest population, but observable trends show that even this stage is variable, with early stage middlemen regularly using different late stage middlemen.

Large populations of subsistence diggers attempt to supplement their meager incomes by looting. These impoverished individuals are unable to transport the antiquities transnationally where demand is located, so they accept a small sum. A series of transporters then move the antiquities locally, nationally, and internationally. Once reaching a transit or market country, the artifacts are transferred to individuals offering either the largest profit or the safest transfer. Late stage middlemen require legitimate storefronts to display artifacts for the widest population of the target demographic in order to command the highest price and maximize their own profits. This series of interactions maximizes each participant’s profit while minimizing individual risk, creating a network from source to market with a predictable structure.

A result of risk and specialization is decentralized market regulation. The United States Department of Defense noted that intermediaries in antiquities trafficking carefully regulate the market to keep demand and prices high. During interviews, looters have noted that market forces maintain both supply and demand artificially. For example, tombaroli are paid pre-established fixed fees by early stage middlemen, removing the possibility of receiving a higher price from different middlemen. On the surface, it appears questionable that market regulation is possible in loosely-based, non-centralized networks. However, regulation is maintained through the threat of risk extension. Each proceeding stage has specialized knowledge unavailable to the preceding one, meaning that the earlier participants can either accept the given price or extend their risk while attempting to find another buyer. The threat of risk extension causes early nodes to accept a lower price, demonstrating the influence of risk and specialization within networks.

It is all organized crime.

While the network is composed of a series of individual transactions and does not have a hierarchy, it should be noted that the entire trade is criminal and organized. Each participant is cognizant that they are stealing or purchasing stolen items, with the possible exception of some collectors, and participants are interacting with sole purpose of facilitating at least two crimes personally, since each stage has a crime at either interface. In other trafficking networks, every participant is considered part of organized crime. Antiquities participants are variable, but from “one timers” to Mafiya members, each individual is performing a role that conspires to commit at a minimum, theft, transnational smuggling, fraud, and laundering over the course of the network. In fact, compared to narcotic and arms trafficking that often commits only two crimes, transnational smuggling and possession of illicit goods, antiquities trafficking commits more offenses than these top two illicit trades. Purchasing laundered antiquities is communicating, directly or indirectly, with participants in each stage through feedback loops. This funds the trade as well as the numerous associated crimes discussed above. Mounting evidence reinforces Ricardo Elia’s statement that collectors are the real looters and the network paradigm highlights their role. Antiquities trafficking participants have thus far escaped the label of “organized crime,” but it is a term that has encompassed the other forms of trafficking and their members.

Specialization correlates with profit in each stage, since rural looters lack smugglers’ transportation knowledge, who in turn lack the gallery owners’ legitimacy.

From looter to collector, everyone handling illicit antiquities is part of organized crime.


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