Measuring the Size of the Illicit Antiquities Trade

There is more and more good empirical work being done to measure the size of the illicit trade in antiquities. The latest is a super paper by Raymond Fishman and Shang-Jin Wei, both of Columbia University (some users may need to pay to download if they don’t have an .edu or .gov ip).

They came up with a great idea to measure illicit antiquities entering the United States. They capitalize on the odd way the trade works. An object may be illegally exported from a source nation, but be imported and sold in a perfectly legal manner in the United States. The historic justification for this is the idea that nations will not enforce the public laws of another nation. However this policy has disastrous consequences for the antiquities trade. By focusing on this paperwork gap, they can estimate the nations with the biggest loss of antiquities. The biggest reporting gaps are in Syria, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Vietnam and Russia. As one would expect Canada, New Zealand, Britain and Hong Kong have low reporting gaps. Both Canada and Britain of course have limited export restrictions.

Here’s the abstract:

We empirically analyze the illicit trade in cultural property and antiques, taking advantage of different reporting incentives between source and destination countries. We thus generate a measure of illicit trafficking in these goods based on the difference between imports recorded in United States’ customs data and the (purportedly identical) trade as recorded by customs authorities in exporting countries. We find that this reporting gap is highly correlated with the corruption level of the exporting country as measured by commonly used survey-based indicies, and that this correlation is stronger for artifact-rich countries. As a placebo test, we do not observe any such pattern for U.S. imports of toys from these same exporters. We report similar results for four other Western country markets. Our analysis provides a useful framework for studying trade in illicit goods. Further, our results provide empirical confirmation that survey-based corruption indicies are informative, as they are correlated with an objective measure of illicit activity.

(Hat tip: Jay Hancock)

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Forthcoming Article on Federal Criminal Penalties for Dealing in Illicit Cultural Property


I have posted my new manuscript on SSRN: Why Federal Criminal Penalties for Dealing in Illicit Cultural Property are Ineffective, and a Pragmatic Alternative. It will be published in the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal this fall. Pictured at right is Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally which has been locked away in storage for 8 years due to a protracted forfeiture dispute. Here is the abstract:

There have been many articles on this subject in recent years, and I add to the discourse in two important ways. First, I attempt to unpack the values at work in US federal criminal penalties for buying and selling illicit cultural property. The illicit trade in cultural property may be the third largest behind narcotics and weapons. I look at the various stakeholders which formulate cultural property policy and look at why their fundamental differences of opinion are producing an ineffective regulatory framework. A number of recent articles have dealt with this subject, however the discussion about what the law should be doing has prevented a discussion of the practical effect of the status quo. I hope my analysis will further the debate by showing that the current criminal penalties are not producing satisfactory results. Second, I show how a pragmatic approach to cultural property has worked well in the United Kingdom and how such an approach could be adopted in the US. This would give real effect to the federal criminal regulation of cultural property. The art and antiquities market lacks transparency at present. Until this trade begins to effectively distinguish between licit and illicit cultural objects, the theft, looting and destruction of historical sites will surely continue. I hope my discussion of the UK experience can bring attention to the illicit trade in cultural property and the criminal response in the US.

I would be delighted to hear any comments or reactions to the piece.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com