Inside the Mind-Boggling World of the Antiquities Theft Task Force
You can't make this shit up
If this is the newsletter you open when you can’t deal with the rest of your day — consider becoming a paid subscribing member. Your contributions make this work sustainable, and also make it possible for me to offer free subscriptions for anyone who cannot afford to pay.
AHP Note: This is the first in a what I hope to make a monthly feature of Culture Study Guest Interviews. I interview people nearly every week for this newsletter, but I my own inclinations and passions are, well, my own. If you have a pitch for an interview with someone who is not famous but does or writes or does work on something that’s really interesting, send me a pitch at annehelenpetersen @ gmail dot com. Pitches should include why you want to interview the person, 4-5 potential questions, the degree of certainty that you could get the subject to agree to the interview, and have CULTURE STUDY GUEST INTERVIEW in the subject line. Pay is $500.
You know that feeling when someone describes a particular cultural or social rabbit hole to you and you know, one sentence in, that it’s something that 1) you know basically nothing about but 2) now that you know it exists, you would like to spend the rest of the day learning about it? That’s who I felt when Hannah Barbosa Cesnik told me about Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the New York Antiquities Theft Task Force. I’m not going to say much more, and instead let Hannah’s fascinating interview unfurl.
The best photos to come out of the Met Gala every year are always the ones where you feel like a voyeur. It’s a weird combination of intimacy, celebrity, modernity, and antiquity that’s hard to replicate and harder, I think, to ignore. A shot of Kim Kardashian leaning against an Egyptian coffin at the 2018 Met Gala by Landon Nordeman exposes his subject in a flash of light—though perhaps not the subject anyone expected.
Out of the thousands upon thousands who saw the shot, one happened to be more interested in the gold coffin than Kim’s (heavenly) body in gold Versace. He had looted the coffin seven years earlier but was never paid for his spoils. And it was now sitting in the Met. Angry and in possession of receipts, he fired off an anonymous email to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to tip them off about the buxom gold figure in the photo next to the Kardashian.
A year later, the DA’s Office proudly announced that after being stolen during the revolution in 2011, the coffin of Nedjemankh was finally returning home to Egypt. Scorned criminals, ancient art, and the social event of the season—you can’t make this shit up.
But aside from that star-studded sabotage, the coffin of Nedjemankh isn’t actually an outlier. And neither is the other antiquities scandal still surrounding Kim K (she purchased an allegedly looted ancient Roman sculpture with Kanye back in 2016).
Stolen antiquities end up in museums, galleries, and private collections surprisingly often. It happens like this: Looters dig up artifacts, smuggle them to dealers, who then bounce them from port to port. Eventually, someone higher up the chain sells these artifacts to museums like the Met and wealthy collectors like Kim who are all too willing to overlook those pesky legal details.
And usually, they stay there, because most jurisdictions just aren’t interested in going after antiquities theft. But most jurisdictions don’t have an ADA like Matthew Bogdanos.
Bogdanos has been working with antiquities since 2003, when he led a mission to recover the thousands of antiquities lost after the sacking of the National Museum of Iraq. On the heels of a National Humanities Medal for his work in Iraq, Bogdanos returned to Manhattan in order to head the city’s first antiquities theft task force. It would take another 12 years of Bogdanos tackling antiquities theft largely on his own before the city established an official unit. Since its official inception, under Cyrus Vance, and now under new DA Alvin Bragg, the team has helped return something like 2,000 antiquities to their countries of origin.
Besides Bogdanos, who’s still regularly staffed on homicide cases, the small, tenacious team relies on the wide-ranging skills of three other assistant DAs, five specialists in art and archeology, two detectives, and a handful of Homeland Security agents. If you can’t find them in their office downtown, you can probably assume they’re knocking on the ornate doors of the Upper East Side. To paraphrase the man behind the raids, underneath the genteel patina of the upper-class art world is a solid core of criminal activity. The seized art actually occupies so much space that the DA’s storage facilities have been dubbed Manhattan’s best antiquities museum.
Over the phone, Bogdanos is a gruff, thoughtful counterpoint to the posh art world he regulates. A military background and a childhood spent bussing tables at his parents’ Kips Bay Greek restaurant might seem like unlikely résumé items for a prosecutor, but antiquities trafficking isn’t your standard crime.
Partly that’s because how we handle art crime reflects the culture we care about. Do we value preservation or access? Integrity of context or cultural internationalism? Is it better for an idol from Nepal to be under watchful, climate-controlled museum care, or back in its original community? Are we willing to show Marilyn Monroe’s iconic dress to the millions of viewers watching the 2022 Met Gala red carpet at the risk that it could be irreparably damaged? It’s a conversation we’ve largely left to those who can actually afford the art—a rich people problem—and the art world is more than happy to keep it that way. But it’s our problem, too; the answers affect how we experience art, and what art we get to see.
I wanted to speak to Bogdanos to open that conversation—and, of course, to answer the question the New York Times couldn’t: What does Manhattan’s best-kept secret museum actually look like?
Alright, so to start, I'd love it if you could give me a sense—without discussing details of ongoing investigations, of course—of what happens behind the scenes. So much of the art world thrives on a culture of secrecy, and provenance documentation is often conveniently lost or straight up fabricated, if it even exists. So how do you and your team actually go about finding these stolen antiquities before you proceed with seizures?
Sure, and the answer is, there are as many answers to that question as there are antiquities. My unit has now seized more than 4000 stolen antiquities over the last decade. And there are literally 4000 different stories. But they generally fall into several categories.
First category is good people around the world who notice something's wrong. There are just a lot of people—gallery owners, museum employees, auction house employees, sometimes academics—who are just getting it. They're suddenly saying, "Wait a second, these guys are doing good things." And they recognize that we're not trying to go back and redress the wrongs of the 19th century. I mean, that's just not our legal mandate. But what we are doing is saying, okay, maybe looting is as old as any other trade in the business (it's been done for thousands of years), but it's got to stop now. And so we have those cases, where anonymous people just call with tips. These complete strangers are behind some of our more extraordinary seizures. It’s really kind of impressive and heartwarming.
The second way we get a case is bad guys. People want to stay out of jail. It’s the lifeblood of any law enforcement organization—and to be perfectly clear, we are a law enforcement organization. We are not the State Department. We're not Interpol, we're not all these other civil law firms, right? We are a law enforcement agency engaged in law enforcement actions, where there are violations of criminal law. Period. Full Stop. And sometimes you have to dance with the devil, because criminals have the best information.
Want to stop a drug dealer, well who's got the best information about that drug dealer? Another drug dealer. That's just the way it is. Many of our cases are made behind the scenes by people who simply want to stay out of jail. Those who don't understand how law enforcement works will opine on some tweet or blog, "Oh, I can't believe so-and-so didn't go to jail." Well, so-and-so gave us 500 looted antiquities instead of going to jail for six months, so you know what—
—it might be worth it?
I'll take that trade, I will. I'll take that trade. I mean, do I like it? Of course I don't like it. But we take that trade, we make it every day. And that's a large portion of our cases.
Another way that cases come in are jealous dealers. More times than you can count, dealers who lose pieces to their rivals call me and say, "I have information that so-and-so is in possession of a stolen piece." So, you know, don't under don't underestimate human jealousy.
And then we have cases that we make in-house. We have, by virtue of having some of the most talented and dedicated people I've ever had the honor of working with, the ability to make our own cases. We will identify a smuggling network. And smuggling networks tend to be very localized and very precise. Generally, if you tell me the region, I will tell you the smuggler. And so when we investigate the smuggling network, we generally identify pieces and people that no one knew existed. And then we notify the country, "Oh, by the way, we've got 100 objects that were looted from your country." And the ambassador will say, "Really? Really? We didn't know that." Yeah, [of course] you didn't know that. That's the nature of antiquities smuggling.
And then the last general category is COVID related. It used to be that everything was done privately, it was done quietly. Well, you don't get foot traffic anymore. And people aren't traveling. So as a result, most of the trade has had to go online—that includes museums. Museums have suddenly and slowly begun publishing online much of their collection so that you can virtually tour the museum. Galleries as well. And so you have this treasure trove of previously unpublished items just online. A lot of countries have taken to scouring the internet. And when they find a piece, they generally try to contact me. So that's the last general category in which we get our cases.
And, to be really candid with you, the reason I'm talking to you is that publicity is good. It's good for law enforcement. But it's good in ways that people don't necessarily fully grasp immediately. One of the ways it's good is what I just told you educates people on, "Oh, wait a second, now I know who to go to. I saw this dodgy piece at a Park Avenue apartment"— this is a true story, it was a coffee table. In fact, it was a 2000 year old mosaic tile—
—I had heard about this one in the news, it got quite a bit of attention.
And it was a coffee table. That person knew about me because of some articles he read somewhere—I don't know which ones—and so it gives people the place to go, a phone number or email. So that's good for us.
The other reason I believe in press and media interviews is because we should be transparent. We in law enforcement have extraordinary powers, we have extraordinary authority. And we should be transparent in the use of that authority. People should understand, this is what we do and this is what we don't do. Say you have a piece in your collection from 1920, and it was probably from some area that was colonized. And you know, maybe on some moral plane, it should be returned. Well, that's interesting; none of my business. None of my business. I don't have the legal mandate. I don't have the legal authority. Do I have a personal opinion about whether the Parthenon sculptures that were taken by Lord Elgin belong in Russell Square or whether they belong in Athens? Of course, I have a personal opinion. Is it a legal question? Absolutely not. Is it a criminal question? Absolutely not. He did it in the 1820s.
So we like people dispelling the mythology. I'm not out to denude every single museum of its treasures, just the stolen ones! I don't want to put—what was that Atlantic thing? You know, you're putting gallery owners out of business?—No, just the illegal ones. Which is what we're supposed to do. That's our job.
Sure. But I mean, you've taken on, since 2017, pretty much every kind of museum and gallery. From big ticket players like the Met to, most recently, Yale's art gallery. And there are the individuals—you mentioned individual gallery people or curators that have reached out to you. But have you noticed any kind of broader trends or implications for the art world since you've really gone full steam on this enforcement?
That's a great question. So there's actually two of the bigger trends. One is good, one is not so good. So the one that's good is—for whatever motivation—people are suddenly saying, "Alright, let's actually increase our due diligence. Let's start looking a little more carefully. Let's risk offending the donor." And you have to understand when it comes to museums particularly, nobody wants to offend a donor. I get it, I really do. You can name the university, name the museum, name the foundation—they don't survive without donors. So when you have a donor who says I'm going to give you $10 million worth of antiquities—
—It's hard to say no.
You don't say to the donor, "Well, are they legal?" Because that donor moves. And you probably know this, but if you have a Google product or an Apple product, and you think you have deleted a text or an email, or a photo, you are so wrong.
Oh, it's very much still there. You can’t get rid of that.
It's sitting on the server, I don't care what they tell you. And when we execute search warrants, we execute search warrants on servers. And so, we literally will get emails—and I'm not talking ancient history, I'm talking, you know, maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago—where an auction house will say to a well known gallery, or a well known individual who's placing items up there on sale in the million dollar range, "Do you have any documentation for this piece?"
And the next email will be, "Yeah, I looked for it. I just can't find anything."
"Okay, thank you very much." And that's it. And that's the entire exchange. Again, I'm talking like 10, 15 years ago. So I think people are recognizing that "Oh. This antiquities trafficking unit? They don't play." And the days of being able to do this quietly, behind closed doors and hush, hush it, the, "Oh, don't tell anybody, but we'll surrender this stuff voluntarily because you said pretty please"—people recognize those days are over. They’re starting to ask some of the tough questions that used to be considered oh-ever-so-gauche. They recognize that this office, this unit, we do our actions without fear or favor. Without regard to socio-economic background. Without regard to zip code.
And, listen, the reality is we deal with people who have never seen a special agent or detective except on television. The number of times I have been told to take the service entrance I can't—as recently as Tuesday. Tuesday! We were executing a search warrant. And I was with my Homeland Security special agents—some of the finest I've ever had the honor of working with—and we get there and the doorman says, "Oh, you can't go up."
I said, "What?"
"You have to take the service entrance."
I said—I said, “Let me explain how this works.” I tried to lighten the mood, but it didn't work. I said, "We are public servants under the law. But we're going to take the regular elevator."
On another occasion, during the TEFAF, we executed a warrant on a $3 million Persian Garden Relief. And we did it during the VIP showing, thinking there would be a lot fewer people and there weren't. We don't slither around, we don't hide; we do warrants professionally, respectfully. But the last thing I want to do is make a scene or anything like that.
And we walked in and I presented a warrant to this very proper British gentleman who had smuggled a $3 million Persian Garden Relief, stolen from Persepolis in 1933, into New York. And I said, “Here's a warrant, we're going to take this.”
And he, in his very proper British accent said, "What if I say no?"
And I just chuckled because I'd never—no one had ever actually said that before in all these years of search warrants. "What if I refuse?" I had two detectives with me. One of my detectives was like a third generation Irish cop, the kind of guy who would if you see him on the beach in a bathing suit, you go up to him and say, "Excuse me, officer," right? He just smells of cop. And I turned to the detective because he had taken a step forward and I said, "Tommy. Tommy, deep breaths. Deep breaths. We're good." And then I said to the guy, "I don't—I guess you'll be arrested? I mean, I don't know what to say. You just, it's a hypothetical, right? But yeah, that would actually be a crime." He proceeded to curse me out with some of the most elegant phrasing, it was pretty colorful.
And so one of the things we have seen is people want to avoid that. And, as a result, people have decided that engaging in due diligence is the lesser of two evils. They’ve decided, the embarrassment, the shame—call it what you will, we just do our job we don't shame people on purpose—"Alright, you know what, we don't need that knock on the door. From now on, let's start doing the right thing."
We don't scour museums online. I don't have the resources to do that. But I've had museums from around the world contact me now and say, "We're concerned about X number of items in our collection."
And my response will be, "Well, before we go any farther, if there's no New York connection we have nothing to talk about because I don't have jurisdiction." I'm not the Better Business Bureau. I'm not some clearing house. I'm not your due diligence committee. I'm certainly not gonna research your items for you. I don't have the authority for that.
But there have been occasions where people have said, “Okay, right, but we just found out these pieces came from Subhash Kapoor and Nancy or Doris Wiener” or, you know, pick all the people we've convicted.
And I say, "Okay, well, now it's a different story. Now I've got legal authority, I've got jurisdiction. So send me what you have. And we'll take a look." So that's on the good side.
Here's the other disturbing trend, though: Some auction houses and some parts of the market have decided that rather than just honoring the law, rather than just changing the practices of last century, it’s a better business model just to move. Sotheby's annual New York auction? It was the biggest auction of the year, the New York classical auction. Sometimes they had it twice a year. In 2019, they moved their entire operation to London and Paris. They claim it was where the clients were, but one would be justified in being skeptical of that reason. London is wonderful. The Scotland Yard Arts and Antiquities Squad are some great people. But there's just three of them. Three.
Right. The law enforcement resources devoted to antiquities theft are usually abysmal in most countries.
And, bear in mind, Europe is a good faith purchase country. So in Europe, you can buy something in good faith. You are, you know, you're an owner—
Legal owner, yes.
—so you get title. We obviously don't recognize that here in the United States. Once stolen always stolen. And so what we're finding, unfortunately, is that particularly Holocaust survivor, Nazi-looted art isn't coming to New York. And we're finding a lot of the antiquities sales are not coming to New York.
And there's an emerging market that is, of all the trends, the most troubling: the Gulf states. Objects, mosaics, extraordinary reliefs that used to come the normal route—either to London or to New York—out of the Middle East, out of Iraq and Syria and Turkey and Lebanon and Egypt, are now stopping and disappearing in the UAE and Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait. And that is disturbing.
When people said, "Oh, wow, it's so great, the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It’s so amazing that they're bringing culture to the people." And my first thought was, no, that's just another market. You know how the Getty was first founded? In the ‘60s, they had to acquire quickly to catch up because everyone else—well, they wanted to be a major world player. But all these major world museums had been in business hundreds of years. So in order to catch up—I mean, it's well documented—they had to cut a lot of corners, right? Well, I don't know why people think the Louvre Abu Dhabi would be any different. They’ve got to catch up.
There's only one way to catch up. That's what they're doing. And so, sadly, I'll have an informant call me from Beirut to say, "Okay, here's the pieces in the warehouse, they're getting on a container, I'll let you know when. They're going up to Tripoli in Lebanon." And then they'll call me back to say, "Oh, nevermind, it's going to Abu Dhabi,” or “We thought the container was coming to New York but it's going to Dubai." That happens a lot.
So on the bad side, it's probably fair to say that the people who actually understand how jurisdiction works and have become savvy to it are now just avoiding any kind of contact with New York or with the international dealers that you have previously found jurisdiction over.
That's an excellent point, because we just executed a seizure of a very, very significant piece out of the Middle East, and the first thing they said was, "You're gonna lose this one on jurisdiction."
"Yeah… the client didn't tell you how it came into the United States. Right?"
And he literally said, "Oh, shit, don't tell me JFK."
"Yep. JFK into Manhattan, and then shipped out of there."
And I heard like the breath, the air go out of him. And he said, "Okay, let me get back to you." So yes, everyone is very conscious of "don't touch New York." You are 100% correct. And that happened just earlier this week, that conversation.
In terms of the people who have no connection to the market, the people who are probably never going to be, you know, financially influential, but love consuming art, love going to museums. Do you think that any of this has impacted the way that they consume art?
I think that's a really good question. I don't know. I wonder if to the average museum goer, this—and I mean no disrespect, but—this is just so much white noise.
But I'm going to come back at you with a story that may offer a different perspective. So we're in Iraq, and I'm the head of the team in Iraq, and it's a counterterrorism team, right. I’ve got 18 different agencies, 100+ individuals, the real deal kind of people. Just unbelievable. Like, steely eyed. These are the people you want doing counterterrorism operations from all the different agencies. And my second in command was a Homeland Security officer who had been a former Navy SEAL. And we're doing good work, we're tracking down money, weapons, etc. And when we get the news of the looting of the Iraqi Museum, I said, okay, we need to do something about this. So I volunteered a portion of the team.
We go up and we start this investigation, and when we did my second in command—and most of the CIA officers and most of my DEA guys and ICE guys—were saying, "Okay, come on, man, the boss wants some antiques, let’s go look for some antiques. Hey, boss, this rock antique?"
“It's not antique, put the damn rock down.” You know, a lot of really busting my chops, pretty much nonstop. Until we get to Babylon. And when we get to Babylon, I took some creative license and I said, “You know, Hammurabi was right here 1792 BC.” And when we got to the fake Saddam Hussein presidential palace that was overlooking Babylon, the absolute monstrosity right in the middle of the sights, we were on one of the lower balconies, and I said, "Guys, you realize we're standing right where Alexander the Great stood? When he came to Babylon” … and where he probably got drunk and got malaria.
And they all wanted to start taking pictures of that exact spot. I realized, okay, I probably better, you know, cool it on the exaggeration. We continue the operation and they're still pretty much busting my chops, but then we recover this vase. And this vase is probably... 8000 years old. It obviously predated the wheel by, like, 5000 years, so it's hand thrown. And when we picked it up, it looks like just a little pottery jar, the size of I don't know—I guess, larger than a softball, smaller than a basketball. Maybe the size of a volleyball.
We had an Iraqi archaeologist with us on this particular raid. And he told us that this is arguably the first known vase with a geometric design on it. So I handed it to my second in command, and he took it the way you cradle a newborn baby. He held his hands like that. And he said, "Quick, quick, guys. Take a picture." And then they started lining up. I'm talking about guys who have been, at this point, in combat for a month. And this was nobody's first combat, right, most of us had already been to Afghanistan. And all of a sudden, they were looking at this with some kind of newfound appreciation.
It was, I don't want to say an epiphany, but pretty damn close to an epiphany, where he just suddenly said, "Wow. We recovered this?" So I think, maybe, the transformative nature of some of this material does work its cathartic charms. Even on those who could never hope or dream of owning an antiquity themselves—like me.
I certainly put myself in that bucket as well. I mean, I think that story gets at something you've mentioned in prior interviews about seeing the Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh, other masterpieces, not as just literature, but as a travel guide for life. I was wondering if you could expand on that a bit and talk about your personal philosophy on humanities and the classics more broadly.
Travel guide is right. Everybody wants a how-to manual. At this point in time, you can go online, just plug in how to make a souffle, how to change a tire, whatever it is, you can do it. And so there's this sort of newfound explosion of interest in "how-to."
But we're forgetting, or maybe never realized, we've had how-to guides forever. I mean, just forever. And there's a continuous, continuous flow of that information. I do believe it's the height of hubris to suggest that we are facing any issues today that have not been faced before. I'm sorry, I just do. You can put it under a different guise, clothed a little differently. But from from climate change to technological change to discriminatory practices—go right down the list of all the issues and challenges and problems of the world—you can find an example in history that has already had to address it and has had to deal with it. But not on this scale—yeah, on this scale. When you're in a monastery in the year 1000 or whenever Lindisfarne was, and that monastery ceases to exist in a matter of an hour? Yeah, that's pretty catastrophic.
I think we've always had a guide. We've always had a roadmap to a life well lived. You want to call the Odyssey the greatest travel adventure of all time? Fine. But look at the lessons in there. The Iliad—the greatest war story ever told? Sure, it is. But it's only about war on the surface. It's about so much more. You don't have to limit yourself to Western civilization, just look at the Hagakure, right—the 16th century samurai code. There's timeless examples, timeless models of how to engage in a life well lived. And sure, they've become cliches, but they’re cliches because they’re true.
Live honorably. Never do in secret what you wouldn't do in private. Do the right thing for the right reasons. That’s a translation, but I just quoted the Iliad to you. And so I think that if you just look to these examples of classical learning and classical history, and you read them on the first level for the fun, and then the second time for the beauty of the oral tradition, and then you read them on that other level, where you think, "Wait a second, I can do this."
I started keeping a quote book, I don't know when, but probably before college. It's now, I don't know how many, 10,000 entries? Or 200 pages? But that's exactly what goes in there. Lessons, rules, advice from every tradition from the Western tradition, Eastern tradition, from Hinduism, Buddhism, the Judeo Christian tradition, I don't care where it comes from. I think when you have a sense that we are just one more step on a very long continuum, it can be more comforting.
We have a rule in the Marine Corps that you're supposed to visualize all sorts of challenges, particularly in combat. You're supposed to visualize, what do I do if someone's on the stairs? What do I do if he doesn't have anything in his hands? What do I do if he's pointing a weapon? You visualize it beforehand so that when the moment comes, you can react.
Well, I think that's what honor is. I think honor is a form of mental conditioning that's identical to the physical conditioning that you do before going into combat. So visualize tough moments. If you're a prosecutor, what do you do if you find a written statement that kills your case? I mean, it’s an easy answer—I'm going to turn it over right away, I'm going to notify the defense attorney, I’m going to notify the judge—but don't decide on the spot. That decision should have been made long before that ever happened. So on the occasions in my life when that's happened, it wasn't a hard decision, because I'd already made it. I think that's what the classics offer us. They offer us a way of making decisions before the moment of truth arrives. What did Churchill say—you can measure someone's character by the choices he makes under pressure?—well, make the choices before you're under pressure.
I think that's a lesson that a lot of lawyers—everyone, really—could benefit from, especially now. Switching gears, I know you've said that you don't have favorites when it comes to these cases. But you've recently returned a number of antiquities to Greece, and as a Greek-American, I have to think that maybe one of—maybe that return has held some kind of special significance, no?
Yes and no. And I'll explain. I recently had a repatriation with Libya. We actually had two objects, and one of them was a single piece, a Libyan head that had been looted from Cyrene. And it was pretty special. But we had just conducted so many seizures, so many repatriations. We returned 200 pieces to Italy. We had returned a bowl to Iraq that had been stolen from Nimrud that I went looking for in 2003. I didn't track it for 20 years—I think that was sheer luck. And then we had this ceremony with Afghanistan in which we returned 30-something pieces to Afghanistan, and the ambassador—the first female Afghan ambassador to the United States, whom I really just admire so much—spoke about being a child under the Taliban, and how her family had to flee, and she brought the room to tears. Then the next week, we returned the helmet that had belonged to Philip of Macedon. The father of Alexander the Great. And so then we have this Libyan head. And, you know, on one level, great, it's wonderful. But on another level, it was a little anticlimactic.
Libya sent a small delegation, and it was just one piece for them but the Libyan Ambassador was so moved, so touched. Shame on me that I ever said that in the first place. It was one of the most moving ceremonies. And I said to my team when it was over, "Never again take anything for granted, ever. Every single one of these, regardless of value or size is priceless." It offends the crap out of me that we have to put a dollar amount. We have to put a dollar value because the law requires it. To be first degree, it's got to be a million dollars, to be second degree, it's got to be 50 to over $50,000. So we have to. But we should never, ever again, in our hearts and in our souls, do this. We should never put a dollar amount on this. And we should never, ever take for granted what we do. I told my team, “this is why we do it, this moment in time. Freeze it. Remember it next Saturday when it's 10 o'clock and we're on our third cup of really bad coffee. Remember this moment." And so that's my first response.
Second response: When Frank Lloyd Wright was in his 80s, maybe close to 90, he was asked what was his favorite architectural design, right? And he could have—I mean, this is Frank Lloyd Wright—he could have given how many dozens of different pieces. You know what he said? The next one. Ask me what my favorite piece is, that's my answer. The next one. The one that we haven't gotten yet. And I'm being honest, that's actually my favorite, it's my next one.
I can’t argue with that, that's a good philosophy to live by. Finally, I know I'm not the first to ask this, but your office houses what might be the best antiquities collection in the country. It's kind of a secret museum. —And I know there's no chance of my ever seeing it or anyone else seeing it. So what I have to ask is, how is that space even laid out? Like are objects in labeled cardboard boxes next to, you know, evidence for homicide investigations? Do you have them arranged by country?
That's good. We have storage facilities on site—we have two. One is at the DA's office and it's an evidence facility. But I'm blessed with having some great bosses—Mr. Morgenthau, Mr. Vance, and now Mr. Bragg. We have an entire storage facility devoted exclusively to antiquities. And so we have two very large rooms. One room is the Southeast Asian room. We've got, I don't know, more than a hundred million dollars worth of priceless idols from India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Indonesia. And the other room is for the Middle East, North Africa, Greece, and Italy.
Each piece is tagged, color coded depending on the case, the name, the defendant, the smuggling network. Everything is indexed. Fortunately, I have on my staff former museum and auction house curators who brought their system here. And we have a really damn good system, I have to say. I've been in the basement of the Met. I've been in the basement of the British Museum. I've obviously lived in the basement of the Iraq museum. Our system is on par.
We do have a second facility because some of our pieces are 1500 pounds. Some of the extraordinary Syrian and Lebanese mosaics—Roman mosaic and Byzantine mosaics, but from Syria and Lebanon—are 14 feet long. And so we have a second facility because we can't, we literally can't fit those in our on site at the DA's office storage facility. There’s a couple dozen of those larger, oversized idols, mosaics, and bronzes. But yes, you can't go in. The New York Times begged and begged and we came up with a compromise where we took a picture in our courtyard with a handful of the pieces.
But it would blow you away. It would absolutely blow you away, the volume of material. We can't repatriate it fast enough. We just can't. We're stuck with what countries are capable of—and some countries are not capable of getting the material back right now. Lebanon, sadly, is in that category, they're borderline a failed state. Syria is in that category. India was on lockdown for over a year. The goal is to get them out as fast as possible, within months of seizure. But we are at the mercy of the country of origin. Like I have objects that were looted out of Myanmar. Let's figure out who's running the country first. That's a challenge.
The other thing that's really crucial when it comes to repatriation is we don't care. We don't do politics in the DA's office. So we don't actually care about diplomatic relations. You know this—we've returned pieces to Iran. "Oh but we're not on good terms with Iran." I don't care, what do I care? I mean, I do care as an American, I care as a citizen. But as the chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit? I don't care. I return stolen property. This is yours, you get it back. Next piece we recover from Afghanistan, that's going to be a challenge. But if the United Nations has recognized an Afghan Government as lawful, then they're getting it. It goes down the line. We have a Palestinian piece, and we are returning it to Palestine, because that's who the United Nations says has owned the piece of land from which it was looted.
If a drug dealer has his iPhone stolen, and it's not evidence and he didn't use it for his drug dealing and we recover it—
Then he gets it back.
Yeah, he's getting it back. "Oh but he's gonna do drugs," well that's fine. Then we'll seize it again, but he's getting it back. And so I do get this complaint sometimes. You know, should you be returning objects to countries who aren't full democracies? Well, I don't know. The law doesn't say return that stolen property to the lawful owner if you approve of them. The law doesn't say that, the law says return it. And that's what we follow.
Hannah Barbosa Cesnik is a recent graduate of Yale Law School whose writing on art and cultural heritage has appeared in Slate and The American Scholar. Starting this fall, she will be working in art litigation for Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP in New York. You can find her on Twitter here.
Want to talk more more about this newsletter, be part of the vibrant Culture Study Discord community, which just raised a stunning $24k in Mutual Aid, and more? Consider becoming a subscriber.
Subscribing is how you’ll access the heart of Culture Study. There’s those weirdly fun/interesting/generative weekly discussion threads, plus the Culture Study Discord, where there’s dedicated space for the discussion of this piece, plus equally excellent threads for Fat Space, The Bear, Romance-Are-Great-Actually, Job Hunting, Zillow-Browsing, Buy Nothing, Real and Potential Austen-ites, Puzzle Swap, Home Improvement/DIY, Running is Fun????, Advice, Ace-Appreciation, Books Recs, Home Cooking, SNAX, or any of the dozens of threads dedicated to specific interests, fixations, obsessions, and identities.
If you’ve never been part of a Discord: I promise it’s much easier and less intimidating than you imagine.
As always, if you are a contingent worker or un- or under-employed, just email and I’ll give you a free subscription, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.
If you’re reading this in your inbox, you can find a shareable version online here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here — and you can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I feel like I’ve been under a waterfall. This guy has such a lack of cynicism. His take on world events, placed within the context of world history, is incredibly refreshing. Thank you for this wonderful piece, Anne and Hannah. A++
I haven't read such an enjoyable and informative article in some time. Thank you, and thank the writer.