The size of the illicit antiquities trade

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The estimated value of repatriated antiquities in 2024 US dollars, based on museum records, auction data and court records.

In the five decades since UNESCO adopted an international convention aimed at stopping the trafficking of antiquities, our understanding of the illicit market remains largely anecdotal. Because there is no global data on antiquities trafficking, there are no reliable estimates for the scale of the illicit trade.

Last year, two leading academics lamented the prevalence of bogus statistics on the illicit antiquities trade, which is often described (with no actual evidence) as “the world’s third-largest illicit trade.”

“The size of the illicit trade in antiquities is inherently unknowable,” they argued.

Measuring the size of any black market is indeed difficult. As with the trade in illicit drugs, guns, humans and wildlife, most looted antiquities are likely never identified, much less seized and repatriated. But estimates exist for these other fields, and are essential to inform public policy. Illicit drug trade estimates, for example, are based in part upon extrapolations from the amount of narcotics seized annually by law enforcement.

Similarly, it is possible to use the data we’ve collected on repatriated antiquities to estimate a lower bound for the size of the illicit antiquities trade: it is at least as big as the number and value of repatriated objects. While far from perfect, such figures are an improvement on what we have now – a collection of anecdotes.

To this end, we’ve collected financial data for nearly 650,000 looted antiquities – more than half of the nearly 1 million objects we’ve tracked. The values are drawn from museum records, auction sales, court records and law enforcement seizures and adjusted for inflation.

The total value of those repatriated antiquities exceeds USD$1.6 billion in today’s dollars. Returns from the US alone were USD$1.3 billion of that total.

Those returns go back as far as 1950. But looking at returns just over the past two decades, there has been an average of USD$60 million per year in repatriated antiquities.

The average value of each repatriated antiquities for which we have data is about USD$2,500. If that average holds for the remaining objects for which there is no financial data, we estimate the total value of the nearly 1 million repatriated objects we've tracked at USD$2.5 billion.

As noted above, these estimates are, at best, a lower bound on the total size of the illicit antiquities market. Our records currently cover a fraction of all repatriations, and the vast majority of looted antiquities like pass through the market unnoticed. 

These estimates will grow and improve as we collect more data over time.

NEXT: Countries of Origin

The size of the illicit antiquities trade