Why is the Manhattan D.A.’s office publishing data it knows to be untrue?

Why is the Manhattan D.A.’s office publishing data it knows to be untrue?

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos has been head of Manhattan’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU) since 2018. He has understood since at least 2011 – and probably earlier – that claims of a multi-billion dollar market in looted and trafficked antiquities have no basis in fact. This is evident from the opinion piece he wrote for CNN, published on July 7, 2011. In that piece he wrote:

“One of the main problems with looting is that if a site is undiscovered, you simply don’t know what you don’t know. Interpol estimates that the illicit antiquities trade is worth billions of dollars. My question is: How do they know that? 

“If it is illegal and, therefore, a clandestine trade, how do you know the dollar amount? It is similar to the drugs trade, you guess from the amount you’re able to seize. It is not a scientific approach, nor one I am comfortable using in assessing the total value of the worldwide trade in illegal antiquities.”

These two paragraphs additionally confirm that Bogdanos is guessing when he associates the scale and importance of antiquities trafficking with that of drugs and weapons. He even tells us that that is exactly what he is doing and that he is not comfortable with it.

If, as he argues, that Interpol – and so anyone else – cannot possibly know the value of the illicit market, it is a logical consequence that they also cannot claim that it is of equal standing in scale and scope to markets in trafficked drugs or weapons. These are simply false claims about antiquities.

Further evidence to show claims are false

Little has changed regarding such data since 2011, except that since 2015, the World Customs Organisation (WCO) has produced annual Illicit Trade Reports assessing the size and comparative extent of risk categories, including cultural heritage. Those reports include information registered via the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) and so are not comprehensive. However, the figures for cultural heritage, of which antiquities form a miniscule part, are so small compared with other risk categories, including drugs, counterfeit goods, tax evasion and weapons, that it is clear there is no similarity at all in scale or scope between drugs and weapons trafficking, on the one hand, and antiquities trafficking on the other.

Further, the 2020 RAND Corporation report, an independent study into open source data on the issue by what is arguably the United States’ most trusted research organisation, concluded that available evidence showed that a multi-billion dollar illicit global market in antiquities was simply unsustainable: “Simply put, while we cannot claim to measure the size of the illicit market, we can show that observable market channels are too small to act as conduits for a billion-dollar-a-year illicit trade.”[1]

That report also concluded that what had become widespread claims of the trade in illicit antiquities being linked to those in drugs and weapons could be traced back to Bogdanos as the original source.[2]

Twelve years on from publicly declaring that the multi-billion dollar claim had no basis in fact, and that the link to drugs and weapons claim was pure guesswork, we find that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is still promoting the first claim in its media releases.

False claim repeated more than once in recent media releases

On March 21, 2023, under the headline D.A, Bragg Returns 29 Antiquities to Greece, the official media release from the D.A.’s office included the following statement: “Antiquities trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar business with looters and smugglers turning a profit at the expense of cultural heritage…”. The speaker was Special Agent in Charge for HSI New York Ivan J. Arvelo.

The same quote from Arvelo had been included in the D.A.’s earlier official media release on January 5, 2023, regarding the return of an artefact to the Palestinian authority. It is not clear whether Arvelo made his comment during the ceremony at Bethlehem, when Bogdanos was standing next to him, or afterwards, but it remained uncorrected in both releases.

It is hard to believe that in such a sensitive area of crime fighting official releases from the District Attorney’s office would not be scrutinised and signed off by its leading officer prior to release. If Bogdanos is not screening official releases, it raises the question as to why not. If he is, why is he not correcting what at best can be called misinformation that he is well aware of prior to their issue, or at least doing so once they have been released?

He has long known about how controversial and false these claims about antiquities are and, as in his 2011 opinion piece for CNN, expressed his discomfort with their use. Such oversight is crucial to the ATU’s credibility.

If we cannot rely on the D.A.’s office to issue accurate information relating to this highly sensitive area, how can we have confidence in the rest of what it has to tell us on this subject?

[1] See Measuring the international trade in antiquities, page 70 AND Issues with the Current Approach for Assessing the Antiquities Market to Terrorist Funding, page 12 AND Summary, page 84-85 AND Findings, page xii

[2] See Antiquities Trafficking Using Telegram, pages 49-50