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Time to Crack Down on the Criminal Art Trade

Democrats won’t be thrilled that Hunter Biden’s artistic efforts have shone a spotlight on corruption in the art world, but there’s no excuse for them not to act.

President Joe Biden hugs his family during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II/Wikimedia Commons)

Hunter Biden’s mediocre art has provided plenty of tabloid fodder, and has raised serious questions about the ethics of the president’s son nabbing hundreds of thousands of dollars from unidentified buyers for his scribbles. The controversies surrounding Hunter’s burgeoning art career, however, have shone a broader spotlight on the art world’s notorious lack of transparency, which has enabled everything from the looting of cultural heritage to the financing of terrorists.

There are still enough loopholes in the art market—including in the United States—to fill an Olympic stadium, despite some attempts to address the problem. Most recently, the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced new rules aiming to clamp down on the grey areas that have drawn drug dealers, terrorists, and swindlers to the art and antiquities market.

There’s a major fly in the ointment, however: The new Treasury ruling doesn’t actually do much. While Axios claimed that, thanks to the new FinCEN rules, “arts and antiquities dealers in the US will soon be stripped of much of the privacy and anonymity that has both defined the market and enabled corruption, the reality is that the new rule primarily cracks down on antiquities trading and merely calls for a closer investigation into the U.S. portion of the $50 billion global art market. Those who know how to exploit enduring loopholes, offshore entities, and other tricks—such as Douglas Latchford, a once-lauded Cambodian art scholar who used offshore vehicles to trade the artifacts he had illegally lifted from Cambodian temples—will continue exploiting these gaps in oversight.

Let’s be clear: FinCEN has both the ability and the incentive to do more to address this issue. In fact, one analysis recently identified the art market as one of the three sectors representing “the lowest-hanging fruit” for the U.S. Treasury Department to tackle, and the White House itself flagged the art market as a hub for shady dealings, something that evinced no small amount of irony given Hunter’s ongoing art show.

The new lackluster rules from FinCEN point to a broader problem: the lack of appetite to crack down on the murky side of the art world. The biggest art markets, including the United States, United Kingdom, and Switzerland, have served for far too long as a platform for the exchange of massive sums of unregulated capital without sufficient oversight.

Even when wide-ranging schemes are uncovered, such as the case of American hedge fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt, who recently surrendered some $70 million in looted and illegally smuggled antiquities, serious consequences for offenders are rare. Steinhardthas denied wrongdoing, but was described by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance as “[displaying] a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought.” While he received a rare lifetime ban from the antiquities market, he will not face criminal charges over the looted artifacts.

This failure to crack down on the art world’s shadier side will enable the terrorists, criminals, and corrupt cadre of elites who flourish in the illegal art trade. Eliminating crime in the art world should be an urgent policy priority: our failure to do so has funneled cash into the coffers of corrupt cartels and terrorist groups, including ISIS and Hezbollah. As a 2017 U.N. Security Council resolution emphasized, groups like ISIS have made a killing—as much as $7 billionstealing and anonymously selling valuable cultural artifacts and artwork.

The art market’s inherent lack of transparency has attracted autocrats’ attention, as well, making looted art a go-to revenue source for Nicolas Maduro’s regime in Venezuela and helping to fuel Azerbaijan’s government under leader Ilham Aliyev. The Azerbaijani Laundromat scandal, in which the country paid off foreign-government officials to cover for its human-rights abuses, exposed Azerbaijan’s corrupt elite and revealed how pricey art hubs known as “freeports” in Geneva and Luxembourg served to enrich figures tied to the laundromat.

The Geneva and Luxembourg freeports offer “offshore” advantages, allowing art to be stored and traded with minimal oversight. The facilities required special legislation to create their “parallel fiscal universes, and while freeport officials take pains to insist that the vaults comply with anti-money-laundering regulations, politicians and industry experts are skeptical. “I can’t imagine any better way for people to launder money than to go through a freeport,warned the founder of a firm that specializes in recovering illegally expropriated art. It’s no surprise, then, that antiquities looted from Middle Eastern war zones have popped up in Swiss freeports.

Around the world, it’s the same story—the grey areas of the art market have served as golden opportunities for tyrannical regimes and criminal enterprises to curry favor and transfer vast sums under the table. Democrats understandably won’t be thrilled that it is Hunter Biden’s artistic efforts that have shone an international spotlight on all of this, but there’s no plausible excuse for them to keep stalling on real and effective legislation to combat loopholes, fraud, and corruption in the art world. If we continue to allow the art market to be the unregulated playpen of the rich and powerful, it will also serve as cover for untold terrorists and fraudsters around the globe.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBCReuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to the Week, the Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.

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