All of this has earned him comparisons to a certain bullwhip-toting movie character.
“I always wanted to be like Indiana Jones and I guess I’m lucky enough to now be able to say I kind of am a little bit like him,” said Easter, who works for the Cultural Property, Art, and Antiquities unit of Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
“I think that I’ve probably dressed as Indiana Jones for Halloween non-stop for about the last 30 years or so. Now, I not only dress myself, but I dress my children as Indiana Jones. So it’s been something that’s dear to my heart since I was a child.”
Easter and his team are locked in a constant game of cat and mouse with criminals who are trying to smuggle artifacts into the U.S. His goal is to return looted artifacts to their home countries and disrupt the networks smuggling them. Whether it’s the return of dinosaur skeletons to Mongolia or the repatriation of stolen Holocaust art, “pretty much anything that can pop into your mind as belonging to one particular culture, that’s what we would investigate,” Easter said.
For the last decade, Easter has developed an expertise in the cultural properties black market. His unit has rapidly expanded its databases, mapped smuggling routes and tracked thousands of looted artifacts being sold and traded all around the world.
“There are, unfortunately, more pieces than I’d like to think of that we’re actively trying to recover,” he said.
Easter and his team say they have returned more than 8,000 items of cultural significance to a home country or village. But the unit also has evolved its mission in recent years to disrupting the black market antiquities trade through criminal prosecutions.
“These criminal prosecutions are very, very hard to make,” Easter says. “One of the reasons they are so hard to make is because you have to often times prove knowledge in these cases that somebody knew that a piece was stolen. You need a lot of facts and a lot of evidence to show what someone’s thinking. And that’s why I allude to that quote .. where (Indiana Jones) says, ‘archeology is not about finding truth, it’s about finding facts,’ so that’s kind of what were faced with, that same dilemma.”
While its not uncommon for looted property to eventually make its way to legitimate museums or auction houses or be sold by dealers who are unaware dubious origin, Easter and his team have identified a number of suspected career smugglers that they are investigating and building cases against.
When an artifact is stolen from a conflict zone, it only takes a few years of being exhibited in museums or galleries before buyers are satisfied that it came from a legitimate source, according to Easter. So when an item is taken from the ground or out of a temple, Easter and his team are prepared to wait out the “cooling off” period that looters use to build an air of legitimacy before putting it on the market where it can be intercepted.
Over the last ten years Easter has seen his unit grow from one or two agents to an entire team devoted to investigating what Interpol estimated in 2014 to be a $9 billion illicit industry.
“Our agency could probably be seizing something on a very regular basis — if not close to every week, everyday — but that’s not the goal anymore. The goal is not to seize and repatriate,” Easter said. “What we’re first and foremost trying to do is disrupt and dismantle these criminal organizations. And going after them is really where you’ll hopefully stop these crimes, make connections to other crimes, and make more of a difference, catch the bad guys.”
Indiana Jones himself would be proud.