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Network Stories: Bella Gelman

Describe your organization and the unique work that it is doing.  Who and what are affected by the work?  How does/will the work impact people’s lives?

I worked as an Antiquities Trafficking Analyst in the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the New York County District Attorney’s office (herein ‘the Office’). The role of an analyst consists of processing and analyzing evidence that comes in regarding stolen and looted antiquities. Analysts work with local, national, and international law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organizations, academics, judges, lawyers, and prosecutors to recover artifacts and eventually repatriate them to their country of origin. Analysts also conduct heavy legal research on New York Criminal Law and international patrimony laws. 

The work ultimately affects the origin countries that lose their antiquities due to stand-alone crime and theft, but also war-related theft, especially during the aftermath of war where you’ll find criminals stealing artifacts and trading them through the black-market. When antiquities get stolen from their country of origin, a little piece of culture dies and taking away culture is the worst thing you can do to a nation and its people.  Cultural property is what unites people despite their differences. The job of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit is to restore that culture and advocate for protecting antiquities.  

The repatriation ceremonies are one of the highlights of working in the field. Whenever the Office successfully seizes a piece and returns it to its country of origin, the District Attorney’s Office hosts a repatriation ceremony with the Minister of Culture of that specific country.  Most recently, the Office returned a gold coffin of Nedjemankh from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Egypt. The ceremony was attended by the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs. The coffin was crafted between 150-50 BCE and once held the remains of the high priest Nedjemankh. It was smuggled from Egypt after the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 and traveled through the United Arab Emirates to Germany for restoration, then to France, and was finally sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017. The Met fully cooperated with the DA Office for the investigation and lo and behold the coffin was returned to its rightful owner. These antiquities cases are complicated, challenging, and at times so frustrating, but being part of a team that helps preserve a country’s cultural heritage is truly gratifying.

Tell us about a project that has benefited from the training you received from us?  Why was the project important?  Was there anything unusual or surprising about the execution of this project?

Participating in the Heritage Management Organization’s fundraising workshop taught me strategies and skills that are broadly applicable even outside fundraising and development, such as writing a thank you letter or a letter of inquiry, researching and securing donors and grants, or even planning an event or campaign. It also helped to improve my research skills by forcing me to do non-academic research.

What are the global issues that your project addresses (e.g., fighting climate change, preserving heritage and culture, promoting local participation, )?

The global issue surrounding my work is of course the preservation of heritage and culture. The black market trade of illicit antiquities is bigger than most people realize. The core mission of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is to seize any artifacts that come to New York illegally and repatriate them to their countries of origin. In this way, we help to combat clandestine excavations of antiquities. Although it is not an easy task from a legal perspective, the possibility of putting an end to such excavations and the success we’ve had finding stolen artifacts and returning them proves that, for lack of a better phrase, “the bad guys don’t win.”

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