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When you visit a museum and look at all the magnificent art and artifacts hanging on the wall, mounted on pedestals, encased in glass, do you ever wonder how all that stuff got there? Often, the answer would be this:

Patty GERSTENBLITH: They were stolen. They were taken through brutal armed conflict and colonialism.

David FRUM: If you possess valuable artifacts, or if you control valuable artifacts, you have a form of power.

And power is not something that most people are eager to surrender.

Victor EHIKHAMENOR: The British Museum’s silence is as loud as a gunshot.

Museums have begun to look more closely at their new acquisitions.

Victoria REED: It’s a little bit like wandering into the middle of a traffic intersection without looking both ways. There might be a disaster about to happen.

And some museums are returning their long-held treasures to their places of origin.

Bénédicte SAVOY: It’s like Olympic Games for restitution — they are fighting to be the first to restitute important collections. 

Today on Freakonomics Radio, we begin a special series on this movement to return the world’s treasures to the places where those treasures came from. It is a complicated story.

Matthew BOGDANOS: It ain’t complicated. It’s actually unbelievably simple if you take morality and pompous, arrogant, holier-than-thou out of it and stick to the law.

Well, some people think it’s complicated.

FRUM: The Benin artworks are 500 years old. They were taken 150 years ago. There is no system where they can be returned in a way that is consistent with the values of a museum structure. 

Victoria REED: Nobody ever asks when a work of art is returned to the family of a Holocaust victim, “Well, is it really going to be safer in their home than in the museum?” But the minute museums consider returning works of art to African countries, that question is, like, the first to arise.

We will hear from museum curators and directors, from economists and historians, from legal scholars and prosecutors.

BOGDANOS: This office has recovered almost 4,500 priceless cultural treasures.

And we will hear from artists.

EHIKHAMENOR: A funerary mask is supposed to be buried with somebody that is dead. Why are you having it in your museum? 

Along the way, some rules will be broken.

Patricia ALLAN: I’m quite famous for not doing what I’m told. 

And we get in a bit of trouble ourselves.

MUSEUM GUARD: Sorry, are you recording me right now? I’m going to have to ask you to stop, please, okay? Why — why are you doing that?

Why are we doing this? Why wouldn’t we do it? The economics, politics, and ethics of returning art — that’s starting right now.

*      *      *

Okay, we’ll begin our story in present-day New York City.

Matthew BOGDANOS: Let’s talk about the gold coffin.

That is Matthew Bogdanos.

BOGDANOS: I am an assistant district attorney here in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and I’m the chief of New York’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

DUBNER: Okay. How many units like yours exist in the world? 

BOGDANOS: There’s one. This is it. Bear in mind that half of my time is spent as a homicide prosecutor. And 50 percent of my time is devoted to antiquities trafficking. 

Bogdanos is well-suited to run an antiquities-trafficking unit. In addition to a law degree, he’s got a master’s degree in classics from Columbia, and he was a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. When he heard that looters were taking advantage of the invasion to empty out the National Museum, he put together an elite task force and rushed to Baghdad to secure the site. So when it comes to stolen antiquities, Bogdanos knows what he’s talking about. Which brings us to the gold coffin he mentioned.

BOGDANOS: In one of the most frustrating headlines of all time, there’s this headline in People Magazine: “Kim Kardashian Cracks Case.” Which is actually semi-true. 

We couldn’t find that headline in People magazine, even after paging through a few years’ worth of issues. Maybe Bogdanos was remembering a New York Post headline, which we did find. It says: “Kim Kardashian’s Met Gala Photo Helped Solve Looted Gold Egyptian Coffin Case.” The Met Gala is the annual fashion-industry spectacle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The photograph shows Kardashian in a shimmering, ornate gold dress — a Donatella Versace design — posing beside a shimmering, ornate golden coffin that’s detailed with the face of an Egyptian priest named Nedjemankh.

BOGDANOS: Extraordinary, amazing. First-century B.C.E. gold coffin, fully intact, brilliant.

It’s a cute photo: Kim Kardashian and the long-dead Egyptian priest are essentially twinning.

BOGDANOS: And of course, the photo went viral around the world, as I guess her material does.

DUBNER: Even to you. 

BOGDANOS: No, no, no, I didn’t actually know who it was. Shouldn’t be confessing this. I did not know who it was, and I had to be told, “What are you, a moron? That’s Kim Kardashian.”

The gilded coffin had already proved to be a blockbuster exhibition for the Met.

Patty GERSTENBLITH: So the Metropolitan Museum purchased the Nedjemankh coffin in 2017 for approximately $3.9 million, so almost $4 million. 

That is Patty Gerstenblith.

GERSTENBLITH: I’m a professor of law at DePaul University College of Law, and my specialty is dealing with legal issues in the art world, and particularly cultural heritage. 

Gerstenblith tells us the Met bought the coffin from a French antiquities dealer named Christophe Kunicki, and that the museum had done the standard due diligence to ensure the purchase was legitimate.

GERSTENBLITH: Their due diligence was based on the export license, which showed that it had been exported in 1971. And of course, it was written in Arabic. But if they had actually read — or read carefully — the export license, they would have seen that the date of the export license, the name of the country of Egypt had changed in 1971. 

Until 1971, Egypt had been officially known as the United Arab Republic; in 1971, the official name was changed to the Arab Republic of Egypt.

GERSTENBLITH: And the name of the country on the export license for the date on the license was wrong, not the kind of mistake that I think would have been made in 1971. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art apparently thought it was acquiring an antiquity that had been legally and properly handled. Here’s how the Met put it in a press release that is still on the museum’s website, at least as of this recording: “Officially exported from Egypt in 1971, the coffin has since resided in a private collection.” All that turned out to be false — but it would take Kim Kardashian to bring the truth to light.

BOGDANOS: So this particular photo went around the world, and one of the people who saw the photo was one of the people who looted the coffin out of Egypt in about 2010 during the Arab Spring.

That’s right: the coffin had been dug up only recently, by thieves, under the cover of civil war and political chaos in Egypt.

BOGDANOS: This person sees this photo, looks it up and finds out that the Met had paid $4 million for it. Well, he hadn’t been paid. The looter hadn’t been paid. He was told that he would get the money as soon as it was sold. Well, then, he’s waiting for years. You know, the no-honor-among-thieves, that’s really true. So, he was furious. And he contacted a very good friend of his, who is also a smuggler, named Georges Lotfi. 

And who is Georges Lotfi?

BOGDANOS: At the time, Georges Lotfi was one of my informants. 

DUBNER: Did he become an informant because you busted him? 

BOGDANOS: Yes. And he was actually a good informant. He was really valuable for us. So it was worth it to us to keep him out of jail. So he tells Georges Lotfi, “I can’t believe it, I haven’t been paid.” So Georges puts me in touch with the looter.

Bogdanos interviewed this looter over Zoom. What did he learn? For one thing, he found out the fate of Nedjemankh himself, the mummified priest who had been buried in the gilded coffin. The looter, Bogdanos says:

BOGDANOS: Had actually dumped the body, the mummy, into the Nile, because it was easier to transport out of Egypt.

The looter also showed Bogdanos photographs.

BOGDANOS: Looters tend to keep photographs of the material in the ground. And the reason they do that, even though it’s evidence, is, there’s an old saying in antiquities trafficking, “If it’s looted, it’s real.” When people buy things that they either know or reasonably suspect is looted, the first question they ask is, “How much?” And the second question they ask is, “Is it real?” They don’t ask, “Is it legal?”, by the way. Well, when they ask, “Is it real?”, the looter says, “Here’s the photo with dirt still on it, in the ground. “Oh, phew, okay, good.”

From Egypt, the coffin was apparently trafficked to Dubai, and then Germany, and finally to the French dealer Kunicki. Somewhere along the way, it picked up the forged export license as well as a fake provenance; a provenance is a listing of a given object’s origin and its previous owners. Matthew Bogdanos, armed with all this information, now informed the Metropolitan Museum of Art that their beautiful, $4 million, blockbuster of a gilded coffin had been looted, and that they were in illegal possession of another country’s historic treasure. The Met was not happy to learn this.

Andrea BAYER: So, the golden coffin.

Andrea Bayer is deputy director of collections and administration at the Met.

BAYER: As soon as we found out that our information about the history of the object had been falsified, that we had received falsified documents, we immediately cooperated with the district attorney’s office.

To be clear, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the richest and most respected museums in the world. How were they so easily fooled?

BAYER: The Met got fooled by not probing deeply enough into the purported history that was given to us. So there were a number of names in the chain of ownership that were familiar to us, and that gave us a feeling of confidence. We looked at this provenance and we believed the information as it was on the page. We asked a certain number of questions, but we did not ask nearly enough questions about it. 

Matthew Bogdanos is slightly less charitable toward the Met’s vetting process.

BOGDANOS: We get the warrant. We seize the coffin from the Met. It is an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind item. It had never been on the market, ever before. Never photographed ever, not once. But it was claimed to have been taken out of Egypt and sent to Germany and in Germany it resided there for 60 years, and then from there it went to Paris, to be sold at auction and then from Paris, it was sold to the Met. If you have an extraordinary object like this, a world-class object that is the centerpiece of any exhibit or display, and it has never been photographed? Never been listed in, like, an invoice or a will or an international shipping document? And it appears on the market for the first time, like Athena full-grown from the head of Zeus? And it comes out of a country that’s just had a civil war? Guess what? My kids know it’s looted. 

DUBNER: Okay, where is the coffin now, or where’s it going? Do you have it in some vault in a basement in some city building? 

BOGDANOS: Nope. The coffin has already been repatriated. It is sitting in a museum in Cairo, and it is gorgeous. 

As I was listening to Bogdanos, I found myself thinking a fairly obvious thought: if a museum like the Met could be so easily fooled in the 2020s, what kind of fooling and deceit and thievery was happening in museums in the 1920s, and the 1820s? Let’s be honest: many of the world’s great museums are essentially trophy cases to show off the fruits of colonization and empire-building. Perhaps you’ve been to the British Museum in London and seen the ancient Parthenon sculptures from Greece, also known as the Elgin Marbles, named for one Lord Elgin, the British nobleman who had them removed. Today, Greece would like these sculptures returned; the British Museum is less enthusiastic. The British Museum also owns a great many historic and religious artifacts known as the Benin bronzes, seized by Britain in a late-19th-century raid in what is today Nigeria. Again, Nigeria would like these returned; and, again, the British Museum would rather not. To be fair, history is not something one can simply undo. That said, many museums have begun to consider who is the most legitimate owner of the objects they display. There are often clues to that ownership right there on the museum wall.

Jim MARRONE: One of my favorite things to do is to look at the museum labels and see how the museum acquired the object.

That is Jim Marrone, an economist at the RAND Corporation. And why did we call an economist?

MARRONE: I am the only trained economist that I know doing work on antiquities proper. 

*      *      *

We just met Jim Marrone, an economist who studies art and antiquities.

MARRONE: All of this work to me is interesting because it touches on this really intangible notion of culture. Whose property is that, and whose identity are we talking about? 

Marrone especially loves to read the labels on museum walls that describe the object.

MARRONE: In the antiquities wings — which would include not just Greek and Roman, but also Asian and African — those labels will give some indication of when the museum purchased it and how. They’re not going to be the complete provenance history, but they can give some sense. And museums are filled with stuff where the provenance isn’t ironclad. And we know this because they are now returning dozens of objects every single year. 

Okay, the return of art is something we’ll cover in depth later in this series. For now, let’s take a step back to consider how antiquities fit into the overall art market.

MARRONE: So the art market is really unique because value in the art market is so different from any other market, because value is essentially a socially created thing in the art market. They’re not commodities. It’s not like you can look at the price of soybeans and say, “Okay. Well, I’m going to trade futures.”

If you want to learn more about the art market, we put out a series on that a couple years ago; it’s called “The Hidden Side of the Art Market,” episodes 484, 485, and 486.

MARRONE: The antiquities market is yet again different. One, it’s pretty tiny. The art market as a whole is valued in the tens of billions of dollars. The antiquities market is probably a couple hundred million dollars annually. So it’s a fraction of 1 percent of the art market. 

DUBNER: I was under the impression the illicit antiquities market was much bigger. I’ve read one UNESCO citation that puts it around $10 billion. Are they just wrong, you’re saying? 

MARRONE Yeah. That citation is unsubstantiated, but it has been thrown out in the public sphere so many times. There’s just no evidence that that market is in the billions at all, even close.

DUBNER: If we were under the impression that the illegal antiquities market is something like $10 billion, and you’re telling us it’s just in the tens of millions, should we just say, “Eh, it’s not that big a deal. Let’s not worry about it. There are some smugglers out there. There are some rich dudes in some palace in Dubai or maybe an apartment in New York or Paris and it’s not a big problem.” Should that be the appropriate response? 

MARRONE: No. So this is me as an economist, I am telling you: we should not be using economic figures as the defense for regulating this market.

DUBNER: Why not? Don’t tell me that you — an economist — are about to say that culture is even more important than money? 

MARRONE: No, but because that argument is going to lead us to the wrong types of regulation. People saying, “Oh, we have to regulate this market because ISIS is making money off of antiquities.” That’s not a helpful argument because it’s not pointing us to the right ways to regulate that are actually going to work at scale. I’d say as someone who studies both counterterrorism and antiquities, the nexus between ISIS and antiquities is not a good way to fight ISIS or fight the antiquities market.

DUBNER: Are you saying that’s because that story is also wrong, that terrorist organizations like ISIS aren’t making lots or maybe even the majority of their money from black-market antiquities? Because I’ve certainly read those articles too.

MARRONE: Right. They clearly are making money where they can, but there’s no substantiated evidence — and we have looked — no substantiated evidence that they are doing it systematically at a scale that would be comparable to what they can make off of their other revenue streams. 

DUBNER: Other revenue streams being what?

MARRONE: Oil, taxes, extortion, bank seizures.

DUBNER: So essentially, everything that I thought I knew so far about the illegal antiquities market is wrong or grotesquely exaggerated, yes? That’s a true statement so far? 

MARRONE: I think there’s a lot of myths out there and there’s a lot of conventional wisdom that needs to be moderated. One is that collectors and auction houses are doing the due diligence to verify that an antiquity is legal for sale, that its provenance history is ironclad. That’s not happening. But there’s a lot of pushback from participants saying, “Oh, no, we’re doing the best that we can.”

Let’s hear from someone whose job is to wrestle with this issue.

Victoria REED: Sure. My name is Victoria Reed, and I am the senior curator for provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

And what does a curator for provenance do?

REED: So my job is to research the history of ownership of the works of art that we have in the collection, as well as the works of art that we are considering bringing in as new acquisitions or as loans. What we want to make sure is that there are no broken chains of ownership in the object’s past that could signal theft or looting. There are different ways in which these chains of ownership break. There’s garden-variety theft — a work of art stolen from someone’s home, from another institution, from a gallery. There may be archeological looting, where an antiquity is illicitly dug up from the ground, disturbing the archeological site, and then smuggled across international borders. There was wartime looting — pillage, plunder, both orchestrated and haphazard. There were sales and transactions under duress, particularly during the Nazi era and under colonial occupation.

With so many possible forms of fraud — and Reed didn’t even mention outright forgery — you might think that every major museum would employ a dedicated provenance investigator. But that’s not the case, at least not yet.

REED: For a long time, the entire art world didn’t ask questions about provenance. It was very gentlemanly. Many of these transactions were sort of handshake deals and maybe you did follow-up research into the provenance and maybe you didn’t. But if you’re not asking questions about provenance when you’re bringing something into the collection, it’s a little bit like wandering into the middle of a traffic intersection without looking both ways. There might be a disaster about to happen. 

A disaster like the Metropolitan Museum of Art paying $4 million for the looted Coffin of Nedjemankh. So clearly this is not just a past-tense problem. Here again is the economist Jim Marrone.

MARRONE: On the ground, people are looting. A lot of the attention nowadays is focused on the Middle East, where, quite literally, we see from satellite images, people have dug pits in the ground at archeological sites trying to find stuff. In other areas of the world, for instance Southeast Asia, statues are being taken from temples where they have been sitting for hundreds of years. You can see evidence of this with literal chainsaw marks in the temples.

DUBNER: Name some countries where this is happening. 

MARRONE: Cambodia is a very popular country. There’s a lot of demand for Cambodian antiquities. India, Nepal. 

DUBNER: Let’s say we’re talking about a museum like the Met, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Let’s say we exclude everything from the 20th century onward. What share of art and antiquities in a museum like that was essentially stolen?

MARRONE: The reason I’m pausing is because there’s a split in opinion on what that means. Because if you talk to archeologists, for example, unless we know the find spot — it’s been recorded in an archeological excavation report — then the object was improperly taken from its place. Whether it was illegally removed from the country is sort of a separate question. But you’ve already lost scientific knowledge there. And it’s a real tragedy. I mean, that’s one of the biggest reasons why I say you can’t use an economic argument to regulate this trade. The loss of scientific and cultural knowledge is so big, that’s one of the biggest pieces of violence that this trade perpetrates on the world. 

DUBNER: But let me make a purely philistine argument for a moment. Let’s say, I hear you, Jim, that the scientific and historical loss and cultural loss can be large. On the other hand, let’s say this piece is coming from a country that’s in shambles in this long civil war — let’s take Syria or something. And I say, “Well, at the moment, this century, at least, Western Europe or the U.S. or parts of Asia or other places around the world, those are better places for that piece to be not only seen by people, but protected by people.” One interesting argument about why the art market can be so expensive is that if you put an extraordinarily high price on works of art, then that is a strong incentive for them to be protected into the future. So is the potentially lost scientific and historical knowledge really so great that it outweighs that potential upside of being, let’s say, put in a museum and treasured into the next and the next century? 

MARRONE: That’s one of the more common arguments in defense of museums. The pushback to that is no one is saying that those objects can’t stay in New York or London. But it should be the decision of the country of origin to have them there, and not the decision of England or the U.S. And one solution is to say, “We’re going to restitute this object, but we’re going to sign an agreement that it will stay on display where it is. Italy or whatever country can pull it back and move it somewhere else if they choose to.” 

DUBNER: Are there any kind of licensing or profit-sharing agreements? Let’s say I’m the British Museum and I’ve got a piece that was stolen from your country. And I say, “Well, we’re going to keep it here, but we’ll pay you X dollars a year. And maybe we’ll even arrange for one plane per month to fly from your country, full of your citizens, and we’ll show them a great time and we’ll let them see this work. And then we’ll send some more money back to you, in some sort of profit-sharing.” Has anyone pursued that kind of compromise?

MARRONE: I have not heard of anything like that. 

DUBNER: Would you like a solution like that? Do you think there’s a path to fairness? 

MARRONE: I mean, I think that’s interesting. I’m not sure that that would be the sort of harms that we’re trying to fix. A lot of these are symbolic harms at this point. And so really, it’s about righting what is essentially a harm done by colonialism. That’s not about profit. 

DUBNER: So it’s more like, “This antiquity is a symbol of the brutality of your colonialism.” So it’s not just that we want to be reimbursed. We want that symbol to actually be reversed so that you are not showing off, still, after these hundreds of years how successful you were at colonizing us.

MARRONE: Right. The fact that this antiquity is where it is, is a symbol of the power that this country or the power inequalities that the system created at the time; or still perpetrates, really. And so reversing ownership is a way to undo some of that inequality. 

You can see how quickly this issue of ownership gets complicated, especially for antiquities. But it’s complicated even for art that was stolen more recently — like during World War II, when the Nazis looted hundreds of thousands of artworks from a variety of countries.

GERSTENBLITH: Artworks were looted by the Nazis for two different purposes, depending on the type of work. 

That, again, is the legal scholar Patty Gerstenblith.

GERSTENBLITH: There was artwork that the Nazi leadership, that Hitler and Göring, liked, and those things were kept by them, either in their personal collections or intended for a museum that Hitler was going to build. Then there were the things that they considered degenerate, impressionist works by Jewish artists, you know, anything 20th-century pretty much. Those things were taken and sold onto the international market.

In 2019, Germany had to return to the Uffizi Gallery in Italy a Dutch Old Master painting that German soldiers looted from a small Italian town where the Uffizi had sent it for safekeeping. A year later, the Uffizi had to return to Germany a sculpture that had been sold under duress by a Jewish art dealer in Germany, was later owned by Hermann Göring and somehow wound up in the Uffizi after the war. Again, it can be complicated; here is Jim Marrone: 

MARRONE: The identification of stolen Nazi artworks shows the same problem as in the antiquities world, which is that it takes an incredible deal of research on a case-by-case basis to identify single paintings or single statues, prove that they were stolen, or make the ethical case that it really shouldn’t be where it is, and it needs to be sent back. It’s just an incredible amount of work.

DUBNER: But I guess there are two fundamental differences there. One, it was not that long ago. So it’s more likely that there will be records as opposed to a 2,000-year-old Cambodian sculpture, I guess. But also we’re talking about Nazis stealing art often from private homes, where the issue of ownership is more clearly delineated than often is the case with antiquities, right? 

MARRONE: Yeah, to a point. I mean, the private-homes thing is what makes record-keeping sometimes sparse. The proverbial, “I found this in my grandma’s attic.” That is sort of, like, the joke people say about antiquities. “Oh, I found this statue in my grandma’s attic.” Well, that might be true. It also might be completely false.

DUBNER: Or it could be that your grandma was the smuggler. 

MARRONE: Right, who knows? It’s the same with, if grandma had a Monet and it was stolen by the Nazis, was that Monet ever documented? Or did she buy it direct from a dealer back in the 1890s? So it could be cloudy in both cases. 

Coming up: there’s one thing that isn’t cloudy — at least in the U.S.:

BOGDANOS: If it is stolen, it is always stolen.

But in other countries? Yes, more clouds.

*      *      *

Remember what the economist Jim Marrone told us earlier, about the cultural aspect of antiquities trafficking versus the legal:

MARRONE: Whether it was illegally removed from the country is sort of a separate question.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists just published a report arguing that over 1,000 artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are “linked to alleged looting and trafficking figures.” A recent report by the independent newsroom ProPublica found that many objects in the Met’s Native American collection lack “clear ownership histories” and may well be “stolen or fake.” Stolen artifacts from people whose land was also stolen? — yes, there can be layers of ugly history to wade through when it comes to antiquities. In any case, Matthew Bogdanos, the former Marine colonel and current antiquities-trafficking prosecutor, has become the public face of the effort to call out stolen artwork in New York.

BOGDANOS: We do not, under any circumstances, want to denude New York of its cultural treasures. I simply want us to respect the rule of law and honor the laws of the countries whose cultural patrimony has been pillaged for millennia. It’s just that simple. If it’s legal, great. We should keep it. We should display it. People can buy it, they can sell it, they can do whatever they want. But if it’s illegal, then it should go back to the country of origin. 

DUBNER: I would think that that’s a very gray line, about legal versus illegal, only because if something was obtained, quote, legally, let’s say 100, 150 years ago — under current standards, it might be a repugnant way that it was acquired. I think of the Benin bronzes that are in the British Museum. Those were seized in what was called a punitive expedition. It was an armed raid where they shot up the palace and took everything. So how do you define legality? 

BOGDANOS: Sure, I define legality by the law. That’s actually one of the more pervasive myths surrounding what we do. It’s actually not that complicated. The law is the law. Countries have laws of patrimony. In the United States, we honor the laws of patrimony of all foreign nations. If someone stole something from Egypt in 1900, that might be a moral question. It is not a legal question. The legal question is: was it looted after 1983, Egypt law of patrimony? In Italy, it’s 1909. It ain’t complicated. It’s actually unbelievably simple. If you take morality and pompous, arrogant, holier-than-thou out of it and stick to the law, the law will never lead you astray. 

There are also international laws to protect cultural artifacts. After the widespread destruction of art and antiquities during World War II, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was put in place. In 1970, UNESCO created the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Here again is the economist Jim Marrone.

MARRONE: The UNESCO Convention is essentially what the market uses as a benchmark for determining if something’s provenance is good enough to enter a museum collection. The Convention basically says 1970 is the date at which an object has to have left its country of origin in order to sort of be of, “We’re not going to worry about those things.”

DUBNER: So they’re trying to establish kind of a fresh start, like, “Everything that happened before then, it’s too hard to figure. But from now on, we’re really going to pay attention.” 

MARRONE: There are national laws that can supersede that, but those are country by country. So 1970 is sort of the magic number to keep in mind. 

That UNESCO convention has been ratified by 143 countries; the U.S. signed in 1983. But like Marrone said, national laws often carry more weight than international law; and U.S. law is stricter than most. Here’s Matthew Bogdanos again:

BOGDANOS: Bear in mind a few central tenets of U.S. criminal law. Number one: if it is stolen, it is always stolen. We do not do what most European countries do, and that is have this good-faith exception. If you purchase a looted antiquity and it’s been properly laundered, i.e. it’s gotten good-quality paper — you know, fake but quality history of ownership — well, if you buy that item in France or Belgium or Germany or Switzerland, it’s yours, period. Full stop. That’s outrageous. All you’re doing is rewarding a good laundering process. We don’t reward launderers, whether it’s money laundering or antiquities laundering. We don’t do that. Second question: was it actually stolen? Did somebody break into a villa? Did someone break into a museum? Did someone tie people up, put a shotgun to their head and steal priceless antiquities? If that happened, it’s stolen. And whether that happened in 1910 or 1940 or 1970, it is stolen. Let’s say someone walked into your great-grandfather’s house, they tied your great-grandfather up, and they stole his property. And then that property appears on the market 75 years later. Are you going to say, “Oh, well, it was 75 years ago, it didn’t belong to my great-grandfather”? Of course not. You’re going to say, “Wait a second, that was stolen.” We do the exact same thing. Again, going to repeat this: it ain’t complicated. 

DUBNER: When you personally walk into an antiquity gallery or museum in New York, what kind of welcome do you get? 

BOGDANOS: Well, it has become increasingly difficult to walk into an auction house or a museum or a gallery as a civilian. There have been multiple occasions where I’ve been approached, and, “Oh, Colonel, I’m sorry, did you need anything?” “No, I really like — I like your museum, I like your gallery, I like your exhibit. Can’t I just see it?” On the other hand, there have been times when I have walked into a museum and I have looked at the curatorial card on the side and said to myself, are you kidding me? And then, yeah, we have then begun an investigation. Listen, most of the art, most of the antiquities on the market are clean, are legitimate, are legal. Don’t worry about it. But there’s a handful of names that are radioactive. If you have an antiquity that has passed through the hands of one of about a dozen well-known traffickers — half of whom have been convicted by us and the other half of whom we have arrest warrants out for around the world — chances are pretty good it’s stolen. If there’s a piece in a museum or a gallery and the first name on the provenance is Georges Lotfi or Simon Simonian or Serop Simonian or Gil Chaya or Subhash Kapoor, I’m telling you, it was probably looted and we’re probably going to find it, and we’re probably going to seize it.

GERSTENBLITH: You know, in the United States, the hardest thing about an antiquity is getting it in through U.S. Customs. 

That, again, is Patty Gerstenblith from DePaul.

GERSTENBLITH: Once you get it through U.S. Customs, you’re pretty much home free.

And where else do antiquities traffickers move their product?

GERSTENBLITH: It seems like Dubai has become a pretty major transit point. Several things from Egypt, from Libya, and elsewhere have gone through Dubai in the last 10, 12 years. If you go back to the nineties, it was Switzerland. Switzerland was the Wild West. 

DUBNER: And why did they change? 

GERSTENBLITH: Well, there was a huge scandal, in which the Swiss authorities finally raided a warehouse of an Italian dealer named Giacomo Medici. Huge warehouse with about 30,000 documents and objects, documenting the objects being cleaned and repaired. Clearly, they were fresh out of the ground. So the warehouse was raided in 1995. By 2005, it took a little while, the Swiss had turned over this evidence to the Italian authorities. The Italian authorities then went after U.S. museums, including the Getty curator Marion True — there was a statue that had been purchased by the Getty for about $18 million, I think, in about 1990. In the art world, it’s not a huge sum of money, but in the antiquities world, it was a lot. Museums had to return — and in fact, voluntarily returned — a large number of objects. And the Swiss decided, partly based on that embarrassment, but also in the year 2003, the U.S. led the invasion of Iraq. The museum there was looted. And it created, in fact, a lot of world attention to the issue. And at that point, Switzerland and a bunch of other European countries had actually ratified the 1970 Convention on Cultural Property. And that led to the Swiss changing a lot of their rules. And so as a result, the transit point moves. 

DUBNER: The more I hear you talk, I could imagine that if I am a board member, a donor, or an executive of a big global collecting museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, you are just a nightmare to have around. 

GERSTENBLITH: That’s my goal.

DUBNER: So the story that I’m hearing from you is one of, I don’t know, ostrich-ish behavior, right? I mean, nobody who’s in this world, on the museum side or on the auction-house side doesn’t know what’s going on, do they? 

GERSTENBLITH: I think they know. But there’s — well, there’s something called willful ignorance. Maybe that’s the same as an ostrich. 

DUBNER: Is that a legal concept? 

GERSTENBLITH: Yes. And it was used in a prosecution of a very prominent New York dealer named Frederick Schultz, where to criminally prosecute somebody you need to show, in addition to the crime that was committed, you need to show a level of knowledge or intent on their part. And the way the jury found that Fred Schultz “knew” — and now I have air quotes around the word “knew” —was they used this concept of willful ignorance, where if somebody intentionally avoids learning the truth because if they learned the truth, they would know that it was illegal — I’m paraphrasing — then the jury conclude that, in fact, they knew. And that was the basis, or at least that was the jury instruction given to convict Mr. Schultz

Museums, of course, are not the only buyers of antiquities; there are also plenty of private collectors.

GERSTENBLITH: So they are creating the economic incentive to loot because the money works its way backwards through the system. And while not necessarily all particularly archeological looting is done for the purpose of supplying the market, much of it is. And so these buyers in the West are creating the demand. If there weren’t that demand, there would be less incentive to loot in the first place. 

And how hard do collectors think about the history of the pieces they’re buying?

GERSTENBLITH: Buyers who don’t necessarily care that much about provenance, or who think that they are “saving” the object — and I’m putting air quotes around the word “saving” — they think they’re being altruistic, you know, they’re doing a good thing. A lot of people have used the rhetoric of “saving” or what we call the rescue narrative, which has a history going back over 200 years that — 

DUBNER: Does that have air quotes around it, too? 

GERSTENBLITH: Sure. I mean, going back to when Elgin took the Parthenon Marbles, or going back to when the British and the Germans and the French looted in Africa — that the current inhabitants are not sufficiently capable of taking care of their own heritage. Therefore, we have the right to take it and save it. Napoleon said the same thing in the 1790s when he took stuff from what today is Italy. So that concept goes back, and several collectors have written themselves and made statements that what they’re doing is right because they are saving the object, without taking into consideration all of the negative consequences that flow from what they’re doing. 

One negative consequence — for the collectors — is that they might get busted. In late 2022, Matthew Bogdanos’s team seized nearly two dozen antiquities from Shelby White, a collector who is also a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; this was on top of several dozen pieces she had to surrender earlier. The hedge-fund manager Michael Steinhardt had $70 million worth of antiquities seized from his home and office, and he has been “barred for life from acquiring any other relics.” Steve Green, the president of the retail chain Hobby Lobby, was caught buying 5,500 looted artifacts from Iraq; he forfeited the items and he paid a $3 million fine.

GERSTENBLITH: The United States is, in some senses, unique in that we collect from everywhere. We are the largest art market in the world by a good bit. The second and third are the U.K. and China. In China, they tend to buy antiquities of Chinese origin. In the Gulf states, they’re interested in Islamic material, for which the market in the United States is somewhat less.

So you might think that cracking down on collectors would diminish the incentives for looters and traffickers.

BOGDANOS: I would have said the same thing that you just said 15 years ago. 

Matthew Bogdanos again.

BOGDANOS: I would have said, “If you cut off the head, then the tail will die.”

DUBNER: There’s a “but” there?

BOGDANOS: What we have found time and time again is that the middleman, that necessary person who is in contact with the looter, or is sometimes once removed from the looter, and the museum or collector, those people, they have stockpiles. When we raided — we did 17 separate search warrants on Subhash Kapoor’s storage facilities around the country. 

Kapoor is one of the dealers Bogdanos referred to earlier as “radioactive.” He has sold antiquities looted from India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Thailand, and elsewhere. An Indian court recently sentenced him to ten years in prison.

BOGDANOS: When we did these raids, we found material that had been stolen 20 years earlier. That pattern has actually been repeated often. So with a little sophistication and tweaking, it’s fair to say that eventually you might cut off the looting if you start cutting off the collectors. But not right away, because they will stockpile material. It’s the same with Iraq. After the Iraq Museum was looted in 2003, everyone said, “Okay, just start monitoring the markets, because you’re going to see Iraqi antiquities on the market.” No, you’re not. No one’s putting an Iraqi antiquity on the market for at least a decade or more. Syrian antiquities, the same deal. No one’s putting Syrian antiquities on the market right after the Syrian war. It’s not going to happen. This stuff goes to ground for decades. The second argument, which I didn’t even anticipate, and that is: if you cut off the market in New York — illegal market — the market simply goes elsewhere. So many of the antiquities looted from the Middle East — Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, the West Bank, Israel — we have seen so many of those antiquities don’t come to the normal New York, London, Paris anymore. 

DUBNER: Where are they going now? 

BOGDANOS: Gulf States. The number-one emerging antiquities-collecting market in the world are the Gulf States. And when they go there, they never come out. The reality is there is a hubris, there is an arrogance. Now, it’s not criminal to be arrogant. You know, I’d be in a lot of trouble. And maybe you too, by the way, Stephen, no offense. These aren’t crimes. But you have to understand, these are people who have grown accustomed to getting their way in everything they do. “I see it, I want it.” That’s actually a quote. “If I see something I want, I just buy it.” I’ve heard this so many times. I’ve had people in my office who have right to my face said, “You’re never going to get to me.” And then that conversation has often ended with, “Please stand up, turn around, put your hands behind your back.” 

DUBNER: You were once asked what would put an end to illicit collecting, and you said that, “A good start would be to put in jail some 65-year-old person who’s never seen the inside of a jail.” And presumably that 65-year-old person has at least several million to maybe a billion dollars. Has that happened yet? Has a collector been imprisoned? 

BOGDANOS: No, not for more than a day or two. And think about why, though, right? We, the Manhattan D.A.’s office, the prosecutor in the U.S. doesn’t do the sentencing. We do the sentencing recommendation. The judge does the sentencing. The reality is in today’s climate, alternatives to incarceration are always heavily considered, heavily favored. My biggest frustration — you dance with the devil. You make deals that sometimes you have to take a deep breath, grit your teeth and say yes. Let’s say I have a collector, or I have a high-end gallery owner here in New York. And that high-end gallery owner, I’ve got them dead to rights. Straightforward conviction, seize all their property, shut down the gallery, and then I can make my pitch to the judge. “Judge, these are serious felonies. I’m asking for time.” I can do that. I would get a great headline, and everyone would say, “Oh, yes, he’s finally carrying through on his promise. He’s putting all these rich people in jail.” Okay, I can do that. What if that person comes to me and says, “I can get you 500 other looted antiquities from my source?” What do you do? Do you take the cheap headline? Easy out. And you do the little celebration dance in the end zone, and you go out and have a drink and say, “Hey, great job, guys. Mm.” While 500 antiquities have now gone elsewhere. Or do you suck it up?

DUBNER: Yeah. You sound like the kind of guy who sucks it up, I assume. 

BOGDANOS: You make that decision every day. And every time you make that decision, it takes a little bit out of you. So we’ve made that deal. We have made that deal with the devil. And as a result, this office has recovered almost 4,500 priceless cultural treasures from 30 countries around the world, valued at more than $200 million. 

DUBNER: Okay, that’s amazing. Big question: what happens to it next? 

BOGDANOS: Great question. So every country is a — you know, it’s like — I have four kids, and each kid is special. Every country is special. They really are. Every country treats these differently. 

How differently? We’ll try to answer that question and many more in our next episode. We’ll also get on a plane to visit the museum at the center of this controversy over returning art. Which museum? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: why are the Great Pyramids in Egypt? Because they were too big to fit into the British Museum.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston and Jasmin Klinger. Our staff also includes Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Alina Kulman, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Sarah Lilley, Eleanor Osborne, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Elsa Hernandez. The Freakonomics Radio Network’s executive team is Neal CarruthGabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.

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  • Andrea Bayer, deputy director of collections and administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Matthew Bogdanos, assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit.
  • Patty Gerstenblith, professor of law at DePaul University College of Law.
  • Jim Marrone, economist at the RAND Corporation.
  • Victoria Reed, senior curator for provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.



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