Online antiquities smugglers are taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis

Heritage watchdog sees rise in posts from trafficking groups on Facebook

Mosaics posted on a Facebook antiquities trafficking group Courtesy of ATHAR Project

Mosaics posted on a Facebook antiquities trafficking group Courtesy of ATHAR Project

The online trade of illicit antiquities seems to be on the rise during the coronavirus crisis. The Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) Project, which investigates and documents the digital underworld of trafficking in looted artefacts, has found an uptick in posts on Facebook groups involved in buying and selling looted objects from the Middle East and North Africa in recent months, as many countries went into lockdown. Last week thieves looted objects from a mosque near Larache in Morocco and images of the crime were shared on Facebook trafficking groups.

According to Katie Paul, the co-director of ATHAR Project, their researchers have seen an increase in the number of posts with photographs showing the act of looting—a move intended to demonstrate to prospective buyers that they have authentic goods—as well as posts of images of excavations shared by looters to gather information from other group members as to the potential richness of their chosen dig site. She attributes the rise to a combination of factors: spring offers favourable weather conditions in which to carry out these illegal excavations; global access to the internet has increased; and archaeological sites and museums are more vulnerable during times of crisis and looters recognise this. She also notes that the sale of illicit artefacts provides a much-needed revenue stream for those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, including workers who normally depend on the tourist industry. “The combination of these factors alongside a robust rolodex of looting experts and traffickers on Facebook creates the perfect atmosphere for activity that threatens cultural heritage,” she says.

ATHAR’s small team monitors more than 120 Facebook groups, each of which can have anywhere from a few hundred members to 300,000 followers. Eleven of the 120 groups have between 100,000 and 300,000 members and 36 have anywhere between 20,000 and 82,000. Paul says the largest group, with 300,000 followers, has around 175 posts a day—most of which are geared towards crowdsourcing information on the best areas in which to dig.

While ceramics and coins are the most common artefacts traded in these groups, the same black-market channels that deal in illicit antiquities are also trading Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), including face masks, antibacterial gel and even Covid-19 testing kits. “Traffickers in any illicit trade will often capitalise on a spike in demand to sell any material on the black market at a premium or scam people using counterfeits,” Paul says.

The black-market channels that deal in illicit antiquities are also trading Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), including face masks, antibacterial gel and even Covid-19 testing kits

The buyers they monitor in these groups are rarely end-market buyers, Paul says. “They represent the middleman’s middleman, a point in the chain where items are making their way from an archaeological site to a network that can distribute them. This link in the trafficking chain also increases the likelihood that the trafficking is connected to transnational criminal networks.” Often, artefacts are moved from their original site to a country’s border or a major transit hub before being shipped on to a neighbouring country. Paul says that Istanbul and Amman are the transit hubs most frequently mentioned in loot-to-order requests. In conflict zones such as Syria, where movement is restricted, buyers often wait for objects to leave the country.

Last May, Facebook removed 49 groups linked to the illicit antiquities trade following an investigation by the BBC that included ATHAR Project research. At the time, a spokeswoman for Facebook told the New York Times that it was “continuing to invest in people and technology to keep this activity off Facebook and encourage others to report anything they suspect of violating our Community Standards so we can quickly take action”, and that the firm’s 30,000-strong policy enforcement team had introduced tools to detect and remove content that violates the law or its policies using artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision.

Paul says that while ATHAR continues to advocate for more stringent policies to stop the online trade of looted antiquities, it is paramount to preserve the existing data because it is a record of these objects’ provenance, so they cannot be passed off on the black market as so-called “orphan artefacts”. Facebook posts that feature in-situ objects with date and time stamps could be key in future repatriation efforts. “In the cases of Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya, this content has more importance: it is evidence of war crimes,” she says.

Previous crises such as the Arab Spring have shown that the world’s cultural heritage is particularly at-risk during periods of instability. But it is not just political turmoil that endangers heritage. Deborah Lehr, the founder of the Antiquities Coalition, an organisation that campaigns against cultural racketeering, says that “a rush to sell”—both legitimate and illicit objects—often accompanies a major economic fallout. “Coming out of the 2008 financial crisis we saw a lot of art and antiquities all of a sudden showing up in the market, including things that had been previously looted,” she says. “What was different from 2008 versus the Arab Spring is that we didn't see the social instability that came with the Arab Spring so the economic crisis was happening but there wasn't the breakdown of governance structures also.” Now is not the time for the average person to buy antiquities unless they have a very clear provenance, she warns. “It is not only looted antiquities but there are also so many fakes out there that people really need to know what they are buying and who they are buying from. There will be so much online, particularly on Facebook, that is either illicit or fake.”

Lehr believes prolonged lockdowns and curfews, combined with the ensuing economic hardships, will result in a rise in illegal activities, particularly organised looting. She notes that during the Arab Spring “there was a lull, there was opportunistic looting of museums and storage units, and then we saw more organised looting begin”.

But Lehr says that her colleagues in Egypt learned valuable lessons from the Arab Spring and so have stepped up security at archaeological sites and museums during the lockdown. Various heritage organisations have introduced initiatives to provide aid to heritage preservation workers across the globe that have been affected by the pandemic including the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) Foundation and the World Monuments Fund.

“The biggest misconception people have about antiquities trafficking and the crime or conflict associated with it [is that it] can’t easily reach them,” Paul says. “Social media platforms like Facebook can bring crime right into your home.”