How Money Laundering Works

Art, Terror and Clean Cash

They say politics makes strange bedfellows — apparently so does crime. In recent years, the international organizations devoted to curbing money laundering have been focusing their attention on the strange confluence of terrorism and the art market. On closer inspection, this unexpected pairing begins to make sense. In two important respects, the art market is tailor-made for money laundering — it has long cultivated a tradition of secrecy and it often involves the transfer of large sums of money. By contrast, in the world of real estate, the buyer, the seller and the broker are all subject to strictly enforced legal obligations to disclose who they are, what's being bought and for how much. But in the art world, few such rules apply. Sometimes auction houses don't know who owns the article they're selling or even who they're selling it too.

Now factor in the operational costs of terrorist groups like ISIS, who have seized control of some of the richest archaeological territory in the world. ISIS is known to be directly self-financing through the sale of looted items known as "blood antiques," from which they've raised tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars [source: Watson]. But they also receive funding from wealthy supporters who use the art market to launder funds. These supporters employ various techniques, including sometimes giving an accomplice the funds to buy a work of art, or securing a bid by depositing a sum of money in a well-established bank. When the buyer (money launderer) later backs out of the deal, the bank issues a check for the security, effectively sending back clean money. This can then be used to finance terrorist operations without fear of being traced [source: Giroud and Lechtman].

Recognizing the scope of the problem, various international organizations have been trying to crack down on use of the art market to fund terrorism. In Switzerland, for instance, the country's Anti-Money Laundering Act has been revised to oblige art dealers to comply with new regulations. Those brokering deals that exceed a cap of 100,000 Swiss francs, for instance, are now required to disclose the identities of both the buyer and seller [source: Giroud and Lechtman]. That said, no international standard has yet been agreed upon and due to its long-established culture of discretion, the art market as a whole remains resistant to increased transparency.