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Art traffickers: Pillaging peoples’ identities


Close-up of an artefact displayed at an exhibition to mark the “Protecting Cultural Heritage – An Imperative for Humanity” global initiative, held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 2015.

Half a century after its adoption, the UNESCO 1970 Convention against the illicit trafficking of cultural property is still a major instrument to stem this scourge. Over the last fifty years, the fight against this underground trade has intensified, and awareness of the moral damage caused by the plunder has grown. But the craze for these objects, the prices of which have skyrocketed; the leniency of sanctions, and the vulnerability of sites in conflict zones are all challenges that need to be addressed to curb the trafficking of what some call “blood antiquities”.

Agnès Bardon

In autumn 2019, coins from different periods, historical weapons, ceramics, fossils, and paintings were seized during an international operation spanning over a hundred countries. The Afghan Customs at Kabul airport alone intercepted 971 national heritage objects. And in Madrid, rare pre-Columbian objects – among them a unique gold Tumaco mask – were recovered. 

In total, more than 19,000 archaeological artefacts and other artworks were intercepted, and several international trafficking networks dismantled in two simultaneous crackdowns – one led by the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the other co-ordinated by EUROPOL and the Spanish Civil Guard.

The record seizures give an idea of the magnitude of illicit trafficking in cultural goods in recent decades, but also of the scale of police response at the international level. The 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property remains central to the fight against this underground trade.

In the fifty years of the existence of this Convention, UNESCO has contributed to raising public awareness of the stakes of illicit trafficking. It has also helped the signatory countries – which now number 140 – to draw up laws and preventive measures, and encouraged the restitution of illegally displaced property.

However, while legislation has become stricter, public awareness has increased, and systems for monitoring, tracing and authenticating works have improved, the number of traffickers has also multiplied – as has their efficiency and skill.

Investigators, customs officers and experts face numerous obstacles to curbing this trafficking, which is now globalized – starting with the current demand for such works of art and antiquities. The trade in cultural goods is not a new phenomenon, but it has never been so prosperous. Driven by the enthusiasm of collectors, galleries and museums, there has been a surge in the value of art and antiquities. In 2019, global art sales were estimated at over $64 billion, according to The Art Market Report 2020.

A shadowy trade 

Particularly lucrative, the art market attracts investors looking for investment opportunities – but also unscrupulous actors. Increasingly, the mafia and terrorist organizations are involved in the illicit trafficking trade to launder money or finance their activities.

The extent of trafficking – which is clandestine by definition – is all the more difficult to assess, as the few statistics that exist are incomplete. Less than half of the INTERPOL member states provide data on the theft of cultural property committed on their soil. In spite of the lack of precise figures, it is generally estimated that the illegal trade in cultural goods is the third-largest international criminal activity – after drugs and arms trafficking.

While they are spectacular and newsworthy, the thefts of paintings – such as Edvard Munch's The Scream in 2004 in Norway, or more recently (in March 2020), Vincent Van Gogh's The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring in the Netherlands – are only the tip of the iceberg. Most of this commerce takes place in the shadows, noiselessly, along circuitous paths that often originate in religious institutions, museums and archaeological sites in countries undergoing difficult conditions.

After transiting through intermediate countries, stolen or looted objects often find their way to the collections of private individuals or merchants established in Western capitals. They are   accompanied by an export certificate drawn up at the place of transit, and not in the country of origin – which is very rarely required by the legislation of the destination countries.

Illegal excavations

Unlike other criminal activities, which are totally prohibited, the trade in cultural goods is partly street-based. Very often, stolen or illegally acquired statuettes, friezes or ancient ceramics are introduced directly onto the legal art market. Moreover, most objects that are plundered during illegal excavations are not listed on any inventory. Consequently, they are not covered by the 1970 Convention, and the countries of origin cannot establish their provenance.

It was in response to this concern, and to the extent of the looting by ISIS and other armed groups in Iraq and Syria, that the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2199 in 2015. It was intended to prevent the illicit trafficking in antiquities from these two war-torn countries by imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions on countries and individuals profiting from the illicit trade.

Stricter legislation and sanctions have been all the more necessary, since the growth of the online trade has been a boon for traffickers during the past fifteen years. With one click, buyers from anywhere in the world can acquire pre-Columbian figurines or ancient ceramics in complete anonymity. In 2005, bricks from a temple in the ancient city of Larsa – dating from the time of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar – were looted in Iraq in 2003, and put on sale on eBay in 2005. By the time the Interpol operation took place in autumn 2019, almost thirty per cent of the items seized were already being offered for sale online.

Aggravated by the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated this phenomenon. During the lockdown, the  Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) Project, a team of anthropologists and heritage experts specializing in digital networks for art trafficking, observed a resurgence in the sale of stolen objects on social networks – particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. The investigative study by this UNESCO partner led Facebook to ban the trade of historic cultural objects on its online platform.

This is only the first step. In June 2020, as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1970 Convention, UNESCO organized an online meeting of world experts in the fight against the illicit traffic of cultural property, to examine the impact of COVID-19 on the problem, and to consider responses to deal with the upsurge in trafficking.

The experts recommended the creation of police units specialized in the monitoring of online platforms, to boost active co-operation in dismantling illegal sales. They also called for a more systematic use of the tools created by UNESCO and its partners – including the UNESCO List of National Cultural Heritage Laws, the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) Red Lists Database of cultural goods at risk, and Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art Database.

The stakes are high. Tracing the origin of a stolen work of art or antiquity not only makes it possible to apprehend traffickers and bring them to justice, it also paves the way for the objects to be returned to their countries of origin. Argentina, for example, has recently restituted to its neighbours a significant number of cultural objects seized on its soil.

More delicate is the question of restituting objects looted during the colonial period. This  remains a source of tension between countries with rich museum collections and those that demand the return of objects that contribute to their identity. Supported by a growing number of countries, this demand is increasingly echoed today by the general public.

In Black Panther, the 2018 film produced by Marvel Studios that was a worldwide success, the son of Prince N'Jobu, Black Panther's sworn enemy, invades a London museum to recover a legendary Wakandan weapon. Wakanda may be an imaginary African country, but the debate over the restitution of artefacts remains very real.

Read more:

A pioneering Convention

Curbing the spoils of war, The UNESCO Courier, October-December 2017

Stop the art thieves! The UNESCO Courier, April 2001


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