An Allied Effort to Save History

Jan 23, 2014 | Updated Mar 25, 2014

As millions flock to see Monuments Men, the new George Clooney-Matt Damon film about the Allied effort to recover Nazi-looted art during World War II, the United States government is continuing the Greatest Generation's tradition of saving the world's cultural heritage.

In a ceremony last week, the Department of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) returned to the Indian Consulate three ancient statues worth some $1.5 million, reportedly including one of Interpol's top ten most wanted stolen artworks. And just a month ago, the American government celebrated another victory, when Sotheby's Auction House finally agreed to repatriate a $3 million Cambodian masterpiece, after two years of heated forfeiture proceedings in district court. Federal authorities believe all these antiquities were pillaged from sacred temples and then trafficked around the world -- smuggled through such far-flung ports as Hong Kong, Bangkok and London -- before finally ending up on the New York market.

These are just two of countless such cases that U.S. agents and attorneys are now pursuing, working not only to reunite countries with their plundered heritage, but also to fight the multi-billion dollar illicit art trade, which now ranks among the world's largest illegal enterprises.

While art thieves and tomb robbers are glamorously portrayed in Hollywood, in reality, antiquities trafficking is not perpetrated by rich and beautiful characters like Thomas Crown and Lara Croft. Experts have warned that instead, organized crime, rebel armies and even terrorist cells may be the ones carrying out and profiting from these crimes. Moreover, after the post-9/11 crackdowns on terrorist financing, law enforcement has reported a marked increase in antiquities and other artworks being used to launder money (in fact, one agent told us that money laundering cases make up the bulk of their art investigations, not repatriations).

It is no wonder then that HSI, the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Scotland Yard, Interpol and other agencies are now prioritizing their efforts to combat antiquities trafficking. Or that the European Union -- through the European Research Council -- has funded a million euro project to study it at the University of Glasgow. There, academics are working to provide much needed data about the trade's mechanics in the hopes of better combatting it.

But the U.S. interest in this issue should go beyond fighting crime. By respecting our Allies' past -- and their laws -- we are also respecting them. As the recent Cambodian and Indian examples show, this is already paying dividends for American relations overseas.

Washington's partnership with Phnom Penh has been tense at times, and that with New Delhi reached a recent low point in December, when Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was arrested, strip searched and then indicted for visa fraud. A month long diplomatic crisis followed, which seemed to end -- or at least cool off -- only with last week's repatriation ceremony.

Likewise, the successful resolution of the Sotheby's case has made front page headlines in the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post, with top national leaders praising the United States for its efforts to right one of the many wrongs Cambodia suffered during its long war against the Khmer Rouge. Rightly or wrongly, some historians have blamed America for helping to put the genocidal Khmer Rouge in power and keeping them there, which has made this cooperation all the more meaningful. The Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister himself even said of the transfer, "The soul of our ancestors who built the statue will be satisfied."

Clearly, by doing the right thing here, the United States is benefiting from more than just good karma. And now as the world's political leaders gather at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, it is hoped they do reflect on how the Allies tried to save Europe's art and history after WWII, and how important it is to continue this work today and in the future. Much unfortunately remains to be done. The world must stand together to combat crimes against culture -- whether the Nazi theft of artworks from Jews during the Holocaust, or the plunder of cultural treasures from Syrian war zones in recent years -- to preserve our shared heritage.

This post was co-written by Tess Davis, an affiliate researcher at the University of Glasgow. Davis served as the executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and is working with Cambodia to combat the illicit trade in the kingdom's antiquities.