‘Rescue’ has long provided a justification for the handling of illicit cultural goods, yet the specific consequences of this practice have not been systematically documented. This paper draws on historic, recent and still-emerging cases around the world to assess the resurgent argument that looted antiquities and stolen artefacts should be rescued through purchases made by private collectors. It shows that the practice is promoted by politically exposed persons, who use it for money laundering and reputation laundering; that proceeds from the practice may be received by transnational organised crime groups; and that its social and political acceptability is exploited to facilitate fraud and embezzlement.
While many of these cases demonstrate complicity on the part of elites and authorities within the societies that are victimised, they are emblematic of the global structure of this enterprise. They also reaffirm the complicity of markets and authorities in the Global North/West in illicit flows of cultural assets that are exceptionally harmful to societies in the Global South/East.