Somewhere in an Afghan village not far from Kabul, a bronze figurine dating back some eighteen thousand years is picked up at an archeological site by a “subsistence digger” – a looter who will sell it to a local broker to get by with the proceeds he will receive from it. This will set in motion a chain of relocations in which the figurine will cross multiple borders, endowed with forged documents that will obscure its provenance. It will resurface, perhaps years later, in a free port – an area where goods are stored, tax- free, until they are exported – in Dubai, and later in Geneva, before an auctioneer in Brussels acquires it from a local antiquities dealer for a hefty sum. The figurine starts its journey from an Afghan village to Brussels as a contraband, extracted from a conflict- torn country with a looming humanitarian crisis and a population on the brink of poverty. It will have passed through many hands before landing on display in an auction house as an elite cultural commodity and a symbol of wealth and status.

The money generated from its sale will sponsor a terrorist or organized criminal network, fuel the spiral of violence, contribute to further destabilization of the region it was stolen from, and undermine the local population’s cultural identity. Looking at beautiful antique artworks, comfortably placed in a glass case and removed from their contexts, we don’t tend to think about their journey to the elite spaces they now occupy. And yet, if objects could speak, they would tell a tragic story of loss and transformation, deprivation and enrichment, greed, and grievance.

“Cultural racketeering,” or trafficking in cultural property, is a lesser-known form of transnational crime, usually performed by criminal networks that engage in multiple types of criminal activities, including arms, drugs, and human trafficking. It is poorly regulated and extremely lucrative. The criminal enterprise takes advantage of the lack of enforcement and jurisdictional differences related to the preservation of cultural heritage. Actors engaged in cultural racketeering range from low-paid “mules,” to art history connoisseurs, to billionaire collectors, and the functioning of this illicit economy is contingent on the preservation of structural inequality. In a sense, the transit space is a space of encounter – this is where the poor communities of the global periphery and the richest members of the capitalist world meet. It is also a space of unequal exchange, as the profits grow exponentially when objects move from source to market.

In popular culture, art crime is often misrepresented, reinforcing a myth of genius villains with impeccable taste who steal cultural objects for personal aesthetic satisfaction. However, the reality of illicit cultural property trade is far less glamorous. Million-dollar art heists are an exception rather than the rule. Most art crimes involve illicit looting of antiquities, unearthed because of excavations. Given that many regions with rich history spanning multiple epochs are currently experiencing conflict and instability, the flows of illicit antiquities are unlikely to subside in the near future.

Although objects are continuously smuggled across borders due to weak regulations and corruption, in times of conflict, archeological sites and cultural institutions increasingly fall victim to destruction and looting, resulting in a booming supply of artifacts. Most countries that have recently experienced instability and armed conflict have recorded a significant rise of artifacts trafficking: Cambodia, Guatemala, Iraq, Syria, and most recently, Afghanistan, to name a few examples. Apart from turning into hotspots of violence, these countries share another common feature, they each have rich histories. Due to their rich histories and cultures, they are practically littered with cultural objects, which are sometimes found, quite literally, at a local farmer’s doorstep. While Afghanistan has once been part of the Silk Road and its history stretches back three millennia, official excavations only started after the country became independent from Britain in 1919. The wealth of cultural goods remains hidden in the Afghan ground.

When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021, concerns were immediately raised that the Afghan cultural property would be looted out of the country to finance the rebels’ new government. Given the allegations of the Taliban’s previous involvement in cultural trafficking during their first rule between 1996 and 2001 and considering the history of other militant Islamist groups’ involvement in illicit antiquities trade, such as ISIS’ and al Qaeda’s, these fears were warranted.

The second Taliban government was especially desperate to find an additional stream of revenue. After the access to their overseas funds had been severed and foreign aid had stopped, the trade in antiquities presented a lucrative opportunity. To make matters worse, the Afghan branches of international cultural heritage organizations – the dominant actors in the efforts to combat cultural racketeering – had to suspend their operations after the Taliban takeover. It was a perfect storm: first, a broadening legal vacuum meant that criminal networks could operate unobstructed; second, the impoverished population produced many “subsistence diggers”; and third, the enforcement action became virtually impossible. After all, the new government was more likely to engage in cultural racketeering than to punish it.

Given this grave predicament, the international community is facing many challenges in its efforts to combat cultural racketeering. Firstly, the flows of cultural objects are nearly impossible to intercept. Many artifacts are small enough to fit in a suitcase or a diplomatic cargo – a common way for transporting illicit artifacts. Secondly, the detection of cultural objects would require training of border guards, or even deployment of specialized units consisting of archeologists and other cultural experts, provided with specialized equipment, at customs. As the trade in antiquities remains legal in many countries, forged documents obscuring the illicit origins are sufficient for the objects to enter the licit market. As a result, detection becomes time-consuming and costly. Thirdly, criminals are increasingly employing digital technologies to sell illicit cultural objects. The use of e-commerce platforms like eBay and Facebook Marketplace presents additional challenges pertaining to governing cyberspace. Lastly, the problem of enforcement action looms large. As Amr Al-Azm, archeologist and professor of Middle East history and anthropology, aptly noted, “The only difference between the trafficking of drugs and antiquities is that if you’re caught with a kilo of heroin, you go to jail for a very long time. If you’re caught with a stolen antiquity, you don’t go to jail at all.”

There remains another important consideration that underlies the debate on the protection of cultural property: to whom do these objects belong? Whose cultural property are they? In the case of Afghan antiquities, restitution would potentially mean handing the objects back to the very people responsible for smuggling them in the first place. Besides, some voice an opinion that some of the antiquities found in the Afghan soil – for example, the Buddhist art originating from the first century before the current era are so far detached from modern-day Afghanistan that the Afghan people could hardly be considered their rightful owners.

If the objects remain in their original context, they preserve a certain continuity: millennia may have passed and empires have come and gone, but the artifacts have always attested to the relationship between past and present. Once they are taken away, this continuity is broken. The objects are stuck in limbo, and their histories – as well as the histories of the societies they were stolen from – suffer irrevocable damage. The artifacts cease bearing a meaningful relationship to the region and to its population. Even if the bronze figurine eventually finds its way back to Afghanistan, the holes in its history will be difficult to mend.

Written by Maria Khoruk; Edited by Isabel Hartlieb

Photo Credit to Maximilian Müller