Trafficking Cultural Materials - Appropriation of Mankind's Property

Project image: 
Iris Gerlach, Douglas Boin, Tess Davis

Thursday, April 7, 6:30 – 8:30 pm

Trafficking Cultural Materials - Appropriation of Mankind's Property

New York University, 1307 L St NW (Metro: McPherson Square)

Archaeological sites and historical artifacts are property that belongs to all of mankind. Preserving them and keeping them accessible are prerequisites to ensuring people can learn about and from history. Their material existence constitutes an important foundation of our self-awareness as human beings.

Ancient history is a collective good which belongs to everyone and requires the protection of local officials. For the most part, they accept the role of protecting the splendor of their ancient heritage against collectors’ greed. However, recent political turmoil has led to the ransacking and trafficking of antiquities in the Middle East on an immense scale.

This panel brings new voices into the current discussion. Iris Gerlach, Tess Davis and Douglas Boin will talk about trafficking as the irreversible appropriation of cultural properties which contribute to humanity’s richness. Their destruction and, to no lesser degree, their trafficking destroy invaluable foundations in the self-awareness of mankind’s history and development. How can reproductions replace the fundamental contribution of the originals? How does the growing demand for antique cultural treasures impact preservation and protection? How does private ownership relate to common property in terms of U.N. standards?


Iris Gerlach, an archaeologist with a focus on Near Eastern Archaeology, Classical Archaeology and Assyriology, has been head of the Sanaa (Yemen) branch of the Orient Department at the German Archaeological Institute since 2000. Director of various archaeological projects in Yemen, Ethiopia and Qatar, her research interests are South Arabian and pre-Aksumite archaeology; cultural contacts, especially trade and migration; temples and religion; ancient water management; burial rites; and art history. She heads restoration and capacity building projects in Yemen and Ethiopia. In 2011, she became director of monitoring and awareness-raising projects dealing with the looting of museums, illegal excavations of archaeological sites and other destruction of cultural heritage in Yemen.

Tess Davis is a lawyer and archaeologist by training, and Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition. She oversees the organization’s work to fight cultural racketeering worldwide. Since 2013, Davis has been affiliated with the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. Prior to her current position, she was executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, a not-for-profit institution based in Washington, DC. She previously worked for the nongovernmental organization Heritage Watch in Cambodia, first as Project Coordinator, and then as assistant Director. Her career began at the Archaeological Institute of America.

Douglas Boin is an internationally recognized authority on the archaeology, religion, and history of the Roman world. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books, Ostia in Late Antiquity (2013) and Coming Out Christian in the Roman World (2015), as well as numerous academic articles. His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and the Spanish-language newspaper El País, and his public writing on antiquity and cultural heritage has appeared at TIMEThe International New York Times, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. From 2010-2013 he taught in Georgetown University’s Department of Classics. He currently an Assistant Professor of History at Saint Louis University and president of the board of Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE).

Moderated by Alexander Nagel, a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Originally from Berlin, Germany, Nagel received an MA from Humboldt University Berlin in 2003, and a PhD from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2010. He is supporting the work of communities who preserve heritage sites and document the illicit trade in antiquities, and has lectured on the heritage preservation of Yemen, Greece, Iran and the Middle East worldwide.

In cooperation with the Middle East Institute and the Italian Cultural Institute Washington, DC.