Cover: Tracking and Disrupting the Illicit Antiquities Trade with Open Source Data

Tracking and Disrupting the Illicit Antiquities Trade with Open Source Data

Published May 12, 2020

by Matthew Sargent, James V. Marrone, Alexandra T. Evans, Bilyana Lilly, Erik Nemeth, Stephen Dalzell


Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 6 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.


Purchase Print Copy

 Format Price
Add to Cart Paperback166 pages $39.00

Research Questions

  1. What do the actors, networks, and markets that enable the looting, trafficking, and sale of antiquities look like?
  2. What data sources can be used to assess the structure and transaction volume of the illicit antiquities market?
  3. What are the potential strategies and data sources that would guide more-effective enforcement?

The illicit antiquities market has become an area of concern for policymakers. It is fueled by a well-documented rise in looting at archaeological sites and a fear that the proceeds of such looting may be financing terrorism or rogue states. Efforts to craft effective policy responses are hindered by the lack of data and evidence on two fronts: the size of the market and the network structure of participants. In lieu of reliable evidence on these two fronts, the conversation has been dominated by speculation and hypotheses and has generated some widely accepted theories of how the illicit antiquities market operates.

In this report, the authors compile evidence from numerous open sources to outline the major policy-relevant characteristics of that market and to propose the way forward for developing policies intended to disrupt illicit networks. The approach uses multiple methods and data sources, with the understanding that no single piece of evidence can provide a complete picture of the market and that only by cross-referencing and triangulating among various sources can salient market characteristics be illuminated.

Key Findings

  • The market size is smaller than often reported.
  • Market structure varies widely, but it often appears ad hoc and opportunistic.
  • The West is not the only end market for looted antiquities.
  • Technology used in the looted antiquities trade is mostly unsophisticated.


  • Policy responses should address a decentralized network that relies heavily on trust and communications between buyers and sellers who do not have an ongoing personal relationship.
  • Increase fear of law enforcement by sharing stories that highlight the risks of illicit trades or accounts of sting operations.
  • Increase skepticism about fakes and replicas by highlighting the lack of specialists in the network and noting recent examples of doubt about the authenticity of high-profile antiquities.
  • Undermine trust by increasing the perceived threat of surveillance on messaging and transaction platforms.
  • The methods demonstrated in this report should be applied and validated in other research contexts.

Funding for this independent research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted within the RAND Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.