Illicit trafficking of cultural property: the fight is being organised

November 14, the International Day for combating illicit trafficking in cultural property, is an opportunity to recall that “the theft, looting and illicit trafficking of cultural property occur in all countries, depriving people of their culture, identity and history, and that we must all work together to fight this crime.”1 But if there is consensus today on the need to combat these criminal activities with numerous ramifications, there are still too few States that have provided themselves with the means to contribute effectively to it.

By Amélie Rives

A lucrative business

Attacks on cultural property take various forms: burglary and theft, such as that of nearly 2,000 pieces from the British Museum which led at the beginning of 2023 to the dismissal of a curator and the resignation of his director; the replacement of originals by copies, as by an employee of the Deutsches Museum in Munich the same year; illegal excavations and looting of archaeological sites, as for example in the seabed around Bastia in 2021, for which 7 people were prosecuted, and others. Conflict zones are particularly exposed to these activities: the museum in Mosul in 2003, the archaeological sites of Syria from 2010, or the Oleksiy Shovkunenko Art Museum in Kherson, have borne the brunt.

UNESCO considers the illicit market for cultural property to be the third most profitable in the world. If it remains difficult to quantify with precision the magnitude of the phenomenon since the data are disparate and unevenly collected, “with a global art market valued at $67.8 billion in 2022 characterised by a certain opacity, sometimes subjective and therefore easily manipulable prices, confidential transactions, discreet intermediaries, anonymous auctions and regulations being strengthened, the numbers can only be high”, alerts Yann Brun, Security Advisor for cultural property, archaeology and archives at the Ministry of Culture. Up to $10 billion per year in 2020 would notably feed the organised crime sectors, with the key being some resounding scandals. In 2014, Helly Nahmad was convicted (and then released) for illegal betting and money laundering in connection with organised crime, for almost 100 million dollars: his gallery allegedly financed a criminal organisation at the head of an illegal gambling company intended for large fortunes.2 “The risk of diverting its activity by financial or organised crime for the purpose of laundering (of capital or cultural property looted or stolen) and possibly of financing terrorism is very important,” emphasises Yann Brun. The UN was worried in 2015 about the fact that “ISIL, the Nusra Front and other individuals, groups, companies and entities associated with Al-Qaeda generate income by directly or indirectly looting and smuggling cultural heritage objects from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives and other sites in Syria and Iraq”3 to finance their terrorist activities.

The international community mobilised

However, it was not until 1970 that « the fight against the trafficking of cultural property and the protection of the heritage, the history and the identity of the countries” placed itself on the international agenda. Since then, an international regulatory order has been structured around the UNESCO Convention on the measures to be taken to prohibit and prevent the import, export and transfer of ownership of illicit cultural property. The EU has also taken up the subject, with an increased commitment since the 2000s and the establishment of a dedicated legal and legislative arsenal.

Interpol manages the only international database of certified information provided by the contributing police, on more than 52,000 stolen or missing objects. The World Customs Organisation (WCO) has developed Archéo, a real-time communication tool designed to facilitate cooperation and exchanges between customs, police, NGOs and academic experts. The EU supports the development of capacities at the service of police forces. The ANCHISE project (Applying New solutions for Cultural Heritage protection by Innovative, Scientific, social and economic Engagement) aims to develop new technologies for the traceability of cultural property. The NOSE project (New security ink for marking archaeological objects) aimed to develop an ink based on nanoparticles to mark objects from archaeological excavations. As for FORECAST, a platform using AI to exploit open-source information or information made accessible by the authorities, it aims to facilitate the analysis and exploitation of massive data flows and to model them for a better prevention of criminal activities.

So many tools that facilitate cooperation between national administrations and between these international organisations: since 2016, Operation Pandora has brought Interpol, the WCO and Europol together annually in campaigns to dismantle networks of traffickers of works of art and antiques. It led to 407 arrests and the recovery of 147,050 cultural assets, including 52 arrests and 9,408 assets in 2021.

States can do better

Interpol is calling for an increase in the number of specialised units and databases of stolen works at the national level. Italy has created, within the Carabinieri, the « Tutela del Patrimonio culturale (TPC) », which manages the oldest and substantial database in the world, with nearly 700,000 images and information on more than 1.2 million objects. In 2022, it recorded 333 thefts, a slight decrease from 2021, and an increase in the number of recovered goods.4 Its members contribute to a unique task force: the « Blue Helmets of Culture », deployable in cases of crisis or war, as in 2016 and 2017 following the violent earthquakes in Italy or after the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020.

In France, the Central Office for combating the trafficking of cultural property of the Central Directorate of the Judicial Police (OCBC) runs the TREIMA database (thesaurus of electronic research and imaging in artistic matters), fed by complaint files for notifying disappearances of works. It recorded 1084 thefts in 2022, down significantly over the past 10 years. “It is difficult to know whether these figures reflect an increase in the number of thefts or a facilitation of declarations, but 2002 was a pivotal year which saw the consolidation of professional prevention policies and public awareness raising.” notes Guy Tubiana, expert advisor security of the museums of France at the Ministry of Culture. The Mission of security, safety and audit of the Directorate General of Heritage and Architecture of the Ministry of Culture intervenes “both in the prevention of and in the fight against malicious acts and trafficking resulting from it, in liaison with all the actors concerned: police and gendarmerie, customs, magistrates, professionals of culture and the world of art …” explains Guy Tubiana, who adds « along with audits and legal assistance missions, the training of staff in cultural establishments and places is essential, from security guards to directors, including curators, archivists, librarians and archaeologists.”

About twenty countries are now endowed with dedicated structures. In 2021 the latest, Mongolia, announced the creation of a special unit under the leadership of its national police. And as a sign that the mobilisation is not weakening, the UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies of 2022 established culture as a “global public good” and reiterated the commitment of States to strengthen international cooperation to combat this traffic. Next step: the first World Forum on UNESCO Cultural Policies in 2025, which will take place every four years to continue these efforts.

1 International Day against illicit trafficking in cultural property – 2020 ( )

2 Southern District of New York / Manhattan U.S. Attorney Charges 34 Members And Associates Of Two Russian-American Organized Crime Enterprises With Operating International Sportsbooks That Launched More Than $100 Million / United States Department of Justice

3 United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199 – UNESCO Digital Library

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