LENS Essay Series: “Stolen Art and National Security (Can) (Should) the U.S. Do More?”

The looting and theft of art has been a vile feature of armed conflict throughout history.  Movies like 2014’s The Monuments Men brought to the public’s attention the evil of Nazi art thievery during the World War II, and the heroic efforts to rescue and repatriate the cultural treasures they stole.  Unfortunately, today we are witnessing the emergence of an especially dangerous trend: loathsome actors like the Islamic State are using stolen art to finance terrorism.  Is there anything we can do about this threat?  Actually, yes.

To learn more read Helene Snyder’s fascinating article, “Stolen Art and National Security (Can) (Should) the U.S. Do More?, which is the latest addition to LENS’ online Essays on Law, Ethics and National Security Series.  In it the Duke Law 3L brilliantly lays out the the recent history of stolen art, explains efforts to curtail it, and calls for the U.S. to do more, not just for philosophical concepts of justice (as important as they are), but also for hard-nosed reasons of national security.

Although her article focuses on art objects, you can see from her amazing bio that Ms. Snyder is an artist herself, being an accomplished flautist and pianist.  The abstract to Helene’s paper is below, but don’t miss the opportunity to read her full essay here.

Stolen art is the third highest-grossing illegal market in the world after weapons and drugs. It poses significant national security concerns for the U.S. The U.S.’s national security framework has evolved to incorporate the protection and repatriation of stolen art and cultural property for multiple reasons, including enforcing sanctions on bad state actors who use stolen art to launder money, preventing the rise of non-state actors’ finances, and bolstering the U.S. diplomatic image as a protector of cultural heritage. This Paper demonstrates how and why the U.S.’s position regarding stolen art has evolved from indifference to active protection before analyzing whether the U.S. can, and should, do more to protect art in the interest of national security.

Part I examines the historical and legal development of the treatment of art in national security before summarizing the current legal landscape in the U.S. Part I analyzes watershed moments where the egregious exploitation of art and cultural property stimulated change to the U.S.’s treatment of stolen art for national security reasons. 

Part II highlights three recent examples of stolen art through a national security lens: the seizure of Nazi-looted art during World War II and ongoing restitution effort, the repatriation of looted Iraqi art and antiquities, and the exploitation of artwork by ISIS to finance the organization’s operations. These three examples demonstrate the influence and importance of stolen art in national security. 

Part III describes how the U.S. might better protect stolen art. The U.S. approaches stolen art with techniques similar to those addressing other national security issues, such as sanctions to prevent illegal sales, bilateral treaties on cultural property protection, seizures of illicitly acquired art, and repatriation of stolen art discovered in the U.S. This Paper discusses the overlapping agencies and governmental organizations involved in the protection of stolen art, illustrating the ambiguous position of stolen art in the national security apparatus.

This Paper concludes by proposing that the U.S. should take further steps to protect stolen art for national security reasons. A more streamlined and effective process that eliminates cross-agency overlaps will increase the U.S.’s ability to protect, seize, and repatriate stolen art, which in turn will advance multiple U.S. national security objectives.

Again, the full essay is here. (Additionally, you can find it and the other terrific essays in the series here).

About the author:

Helene Marie Snyder is a third-year law student matriculating at Duke in the J.D./LL.M. in International and Comparative Law program. She is an Executive Editor for the Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law (DJCIL).

Prior to law school, Helene graduated magna cum laude from Boston College in the Honors Program with a double major in French and International Studies concentrating in Economics with a minor in Chinese. At Boston College, Helene was involved with Model United Nations and the International Assistant Program. She was a member of the Flute Ensemble and is an accomplished flautist and pianist.

Helene was raised in Houston, Texas and is an avid traveler. While at Boston College, she worked in Paris at Worldcrunch translating news articles from French and Mandarin into English. After her first year at Duke, she interned at the Swiss Arbitration Association in Geneva. Last summer, she worked at Simpson Thacher in New York and plans to return following graduation.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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