This post originally appeared on the Cultural Security Blog.
Concerns about the revenues that terrorist groups may derive from the trade in antiquities emphasize the growing significance of culture property in international security. Among other implications, the concerns illuminate two important points. Threats to cultural heritage during armed conflict are no longer simply an art-for-art’s-sake issue, and methods for quantifying the threats are of increasing importance if not overdue. Largely reactionary efforts to quantify the illicit trade in antiquities are consequently hampered by limited experience with an opaque market.
In contrast, opportunities exist for designing methods that exploit accessible data sources and have the potential to anticipate risk. The foresight would enable nations to realize the political value of cultural policy and thereby shape policy that protects cultural heritage. One example is repatriation of cultural patrimony.
International disputes over possession of traded or displaced antiquities reflect evolving political interest in cultural property. Currently, “collecting nations,” such as the United States, take a reactive approach and respond to calls for repatriation on a case-by-case basis. Just as the illicit trade in antiquities developed into a concern for national security, calls for repatriation could have increasingly serious ramifications in foreign relations.
Preliminary analysis of historical trends in disputes over cultural property indicates increasing risk of calls for repatriation (see graph), while current reports of looting in Syria and Iraq indicate a future generation of politically charged disputes. A concerted effort in assessing trends in international disputes has the potential to shape policy that leverages cultural property in foreign relations. Implementation of the policy would promote protection of cultural sites in regions of conflict and increase transparency of the antiquities market. The resulting practices have the potential to mitigate looting of cultural artifacts by organized crime and forestall targeting of cultural heritage by terrorist groups.