Ancient painting and skull (© AP Images)
The Israel Antiquities Authority found an Egyptian sarcophagus cover (left) at a bazaar in Jerusalem's Old City. A sixth-century skull (right) was found at Shanidar Cave in Erbil, Iraq. (© AP Images)

In the Middle East, an age-old problem has resurfaced. Thieves are taking advantage of any chaos caused by recent conflict to loot historical treasures.

But archaeologists, museum curators and conservators, customs and border agents, and auction houses all play roles in stopping the looting and trafficking of cultural antiquities.

Antiquities protectors from across the region came to the United States recently to hear how their American counterparts fight smugglers. They traveled the country on a State Department–arranged visit to meet with academics and experts from the Smithsonian Institution and other top museums.

Perhaps most beneficial of all, several visitors said, was that they met each other for the first time and shared notes on stopping the black-market trade and repatriating treasures. “It’s a great chance for me to [hear] about their problems, especially in the countries suffering from wars and conflicts,” said Essam Shihab of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, whose duties include research in Luxor, the city on the Nile River in southern Egypt that surrounds ancient monuments of Egyptian pharaohs.

Ancient temple with many columns (© Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis/Getty Images)
Lebanon’s Temple of Bacchus, built by a Roman emperor in the second century, is one of the best preserved temples from antiquity. (© Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis/Getty Images)

Experts from nine countries — Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates — and the Palestinian territories participated in the three-week program.

They met with State Department and Homeland Security officials who work on keeping looted objects out of the U.S. and protecting cultural heritage. They heard about enforcement mechanisms, including U.S. laws restricting imports from Iraq or Syria. An executive from the Sotheby’s auction company spoke about its safeguards.

They toured the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and other cultural repositories to hear how curators document the provenance of their collections and see how they display treasures.

And they learned from one another. “It’s nice to hear others have the same problems and that it’s not only yours,” said Amir Ganor of the Robbery Prevention Division of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “We can learn new methods, new tactics, from each other.”

Thieves may hang on to their loot for years before bringing it to market. Hind Younes of the Lebanese Ministry of Culture’s Directorate of Antiquities said some objects stolen during Lebanon’s civil war were not marketed for a decade or longer.

Room full of empty museum cases with broken glass (© AP Images)
The Malawi National Museum in Egypt’s Minya Governate was ransacked and looted in 2013. Some 1,000 artifacts spanning 3,500 years of history were stolen. (© AP Images)

Shaban Abdel Gawad, a supervisor in the Repatriation Department of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, said more than 500 objects were recovered last year. “We’re following all the auction houses in the whole world,” he said. “We also have friends everywhere to tell us if we didn’t see it ourselves.”

Brian Daniels, research director for the University of Pennsylvania Museum, stressed the importance of such networking. “The effort to protect cultural heritage and stop the theft of antiquities has to be through broad partnerships. Think international organizations, ministries of culture, and the local communities on the ground,” he said.

He told fellow archaeologists they must be the strongest advocates: “If it’s not us, it really isn’t going to be anyone.”

The antiquities experts were in the United States as part of the International Visitor Leadership Program.