Interview with Matthew Bogdanos about the Antiquities Trafficking Unit
October 22, 2023
- B.A. in classics, Bucknell University;
- M.A. in Strategic Studies, Army War College;
- J.D., Columbia University;
- M.A. in Classics, Columbia University.
- Bogdanos, Matthew and William Patrick, Thieves of Baghdad, McMillan, 2005.
- Bogdanos, Matthew. “Thieves of Baghdad: the global traffic in stolen Iraqi antiquities.” Crime in the art and antiquities world: illegal trafficking in cultural property (2011): 143-171.
About Matthew Bogdanos
Matthew Bogdanos is maybe the most feared name among antiquities dealers. He combines his toughness and love of the ancient world and has been protecting foreign treasures.
Colonel Matthew Bogdanos is a homicide prosecutor for the New York County District Attorney’s Office, who also created and heads the U.S.’s first and one of its kind in the world Antiquities Trafficking Unit. Raised waiting tables in his family’s Greek restaurant in Lower Manhattan, he is a former amateur middleweight boxer who joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 19. Leaving active duty in 1988 to join the DA’s Office, he remained in the reserves, leading a counter-narcotics operation on the Mexican border, and serving in Desert Storm, South Korea, Lithuania, Guyana, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo. Losing his apartment near the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, he was recalled to active duty and joined a counter-terrorism task force in Afghanistan, receiving a Bronze Star for actions against al-Qaeda. He then served in the Horn of Africa followed by three tours in Iraq, where he led the international investigation into the looting of Iraq’s National Museum. The first to expose the link between antiquities trafficking and terrorist financing, he has presented those findings in 32 countries, in venues including the United Nations, Interpol, British Parliament, the European Union, the European Parliament, and the U.S. Congress. In 2005, he received a National Humanities Medal from President Bush for helping recover more than 6000 of Iraq’s treasures—and he helped recover more than 3,000 after that. In 2009, he deployed to Afghanistan for his 6th post-9/11 combat tour. Returning to the DA’s Office in October 2010, he continues the hunt for stolen antiquities.
Since then, he has led the recovery of more than 4,600 priceless antiquities—totaling more than $400 million—stolen from Greece, Italy, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nepal, Thailand, and others. He still boxes—with a 13-3 record since his 40th birthday, and co-founded an annual charity boxing event, Battle of the Barristers, that has raised more than $1.5 million for wounded veterans and children at risk. In addition to dozens of military decorations, he received a 2007 Proclamation from the City of New York, 2009 Proclamation from the City of Philadelphia, 2011 Ellis Island Medal of Honor, 2016 Achievement Award from the Vatican, and was Grand Marshal of the 2010 Greek Independence Day Parade. Columbia University awarded Bogdanos a Recognition of Achievement in International Law.
In addition to his other duties, since 2017, Bogdanos heads the Antiquities Trafficking Unit. Under his leadership the department has grown from two assistant DAs, two analysts (art historians and archaeologist), one detective, and two special agents from the Department of Homeland Security into a formidable force standing up to the illicit art market.
Q. How has the Antiquities Trafficking Unit grown since it first started?
B: Over the last decade, our Unit grew from one person (me), to two people (me and one agent) to 19 today: six analysts, seven prosecutors, and six special agents. We have convicted 16 defendants of some form of antiquities trafficking and have recovered more than 4,600 stolen antiquities looted from more than 30 countries. Additionally, we have developed a network of many dozens of informants, witnesses, and experts and experts around the world who have become our valued partners in combatting the illegal pillaging of cultural heritage.
Q. How is the work being done in the unit different from what you were doing before it’s formation? If we agree that it is a pioneering work, how do you see this work evolving in the future?
B. The Antiquities Trafficking Unit has, and will continue to conduct extensive criminal investigations into international antiquities trafficking networks that plunder priceless cultural heritage and traffic antiquities into and through New York. As our expertise has developed over the last decade, the Unit has developed (and, I anticipate, will continue to develop) critical information on particular networks involved with trafficking looted antiquities, which drives investigations aimed at disrupting these networks rather than focusing solely on individual objects.
Q. How exactly is the Antiquities Trafficking Unit similar or different from other types of art crime units like the FBI’s art crime team or even the Carabinieri’s team?
B. The Antiquities Trafficking Unit is not another “art crime unit.” It is the sole law-enforcement task force in the world that brings together analysts, agents, and prosecutors into a single team. This combination allows us to combine expertise on art history, law, and investigations into one team. It also cuts through the bureaucratic red tape of Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) and agency ping-ponging. If the ATU wants to do something, there’s no approval from a ministry. There’s no approval needed from a home office. This Unit makes its own decisions, enabling us to move at the same speed as criminal organizations.
Q. Can you give a timeline for a typical case? Where does an investigation typically start?
B. There is no typical timeline for a case. Some of them take months – like our case involving the Quarter Shekel, which was repatriated to Israel. Others can take years. It depends on a variety of factors, such as the number of antiquities being trafficked by that network, the source country, what countries they operate in and transit through, and how well-entrenched and organized the network is.
Q. Would you agree that the role of collectors, such as Michael Steinhardt who became famous for his collection of Greek Art and artifacts, when it comes to the trafficking of cultural property in comparison to the larger, typical focus on dealers and museums, is one of the focuses of the Unit’s work? It seems that a lot of these collectors are people with significant influence or wealth.
B: We don’t have the luxury of choosing to focus on collectors or on museums or auction houses or any single node in the trafficking chain. We go where the evidence leads us. It is crucial to any quality investigation—and I like to think that’s what we do—that we let the facts tell us whom or what to focus on.
What pushback, if any, has there been to the work you do from collectors?
B. When we first started this work, there was a “culture shock” in applying the criminal law to the art world. We would have doormen in certain buildings of individual collectors tell us we needed to use the service entrance, for example. The art world knows at this point, however, that we are serious about these criminal investigations and there is certainly more awareness, and sometimes willingness, to cooperate with us. Yet there are still many instances where collectors or museums or institutions or auction houses are not forthcoming with us – something that does not serve them well throughout the course of our investigation.
Q: How does cooperation manifest itself? Do you have whistleblowers? Or better research tools?
B: Nearly every day I get a tip from someone who might recognize a piece, who might have inherited a piece, or countless other variations. But no matter what the source—criminal, archaeologist, academic, museum employee—we must always independently corroborate the information.
Q: As cultural property crime becomes a more well-known issue in the United States, do you think a significant change in collecting practices is forthcoming? From your perspective, what still needs to be done to make that change possible?
B: There are two parts to answering [this] question. The first is that due to the raised awareness [about] our work, we have had countless people approach us with information they have regarding stolen antiquities they, or others they may know, possess. Additionally, our work exposing trafficking networks all around the globe has caused museums, auction houses, and others to become more aware that they may be in possession of stolen antiquities. That [being] said, there are still far too many stolen pieces on display or hanging in homes, and there remains a lack of willingness among many to voluntarily relinquish their ownership of stolen antiquities. The second part of this trend, however, is that we have seen some individuals react instead by avoiding having any transactions involving antiquities in Manhattan so they can avoid our jurisdiction. Sotheby’s even moved their annual [ antiquities] auction to London and Paris, away from New York.
Q: Do you also think a kind of reckoning akin to the Sackler family and their lessening influence in the art world and institutions is possible for collectors like Michael Steinhardt or Douglas Latchford whose actions in trafficking [of antiquities] have been uncovered? In other words, while the public now knows of their illicit activities, their name is still heard in connection with their philanthropy, the galleries institutions named after them, and their impact on academia, etc. In your opinion, do you see that influence ever going away or facing the same scrutiny such as the one afforded to the Sacklers? Do you think it matters in the long run?
B: We recognize our work has significantly raised public awareness about the consequences of possessing looted antiquities—and this is important. We cannot and do not wish to control public opinion about individual collectors or museums. Our job is to expose illegal trafficking, investigate stolen antiquities, and repatriate them to their lawful owners.
Q: Your expectations for the Unit in the future? Do you think other states would follow your lead and what about other countries?
B: I keep hoping that we will eventually put ourselves out of business. But sadly, that has not proven to be the case. But our goal has always been the same: to stop the criminal activity. No one—not I or anyone in the Unit—wants to denude any museums or institutions of their legally acquired antiquities. We simply want to stop the trade in illegal antiquities. We want people who come to New York City and go to our museums or galleries to know that “this is New York. If it is here, it must be legal.”
- Antiquities Dealer Pleads Guilty for Role in Sale of Looted Items – The New York Times
- Looted antiquities returned to Turkey and Italy were seized from New York home of Met trustee Shelby White
- Looking for a Stolen Idol? Visit the Museum of the Manhattan D.A.– The New York Times.
- Matthew Bogdanos ’83: Righting Ancient Wrongs- Columbia Law School
- The Tomb Raiders of the Upper East Side- The Atlantic
- The Terrorist in the Art Gallery- An Op- Ed written by Bogdanos in 2005
- Looking for a Stolen Idol? Visit the Museum of the Manhattan D.A.- New York Times