Press release

The Real Price of art: International UNESCO campaign reveals the hidden face of art trafficking


UNESCO is launching an international communication campaign to make the general public and art lovers aware of the devastation of the history and identity of peoples wreaked by the illicit trade in cultural goods, which is estimated to be worth nearly $10 billion each year. As shown by The Real Price of Art campaign, in some cases, the looting of archaeological sites, which fuels this traffic, is highly organized and constitutes a major source of financing for criminal and terrorist organizations.

The campaign marks the 50th anniversary of UNESCO’s Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property adopted in 1970. Developed by UNESCO with concrete measures to combat this scourge, the Convention is a global framework of reference in this field.

Illicit trafficking is a blatant theft of the memory of peoples. Raising awareness and calling for the utmost vigilance is necessary to fight this largely under-recognized reality.

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General

The Real Price of Art campaign, created with the communication agency DDB Paris, draws on the language of the worlds of art and design to reveal the dark truth behind certain works. Each visual presents an object in situ, integrated into a buyer's home. The other side of the decor is then revealed: terrorism, illegal excavation, theft from a museum destroyed by war, the cancelling of a people's memory... Each message tells the story of an antique stolen from a region of the world (Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America).

Broadcast from 20 October, the campaign is the harbinger of a number of events to mark the anniversary, among them the first International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property (14 November), and an international conference (16-18 November) organized in partnership with the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, the European Commission and the Council of Europe. The conference aims to take the measure of priorities and challenges in fighting illicit trafficking by region and share solutions. A special issue of the UNESCO Courier is also devoted to this topic and available online.


Campaign against Illicit Trafficking by DDB

Know the real price of art

How much for the soul of a nation?

The Just Judges

Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, 1432

This is the lower left panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, a national treasure and one of the major paintings of the Flemish Renaissance. This essential part, which may contain portraits of Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, was stolen in 1934 and never found again.

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How do you erase a whole culture ? Piece by piece

Mask Téhé Gla

Côte d'Ivoire, early 20th Century

This African art object was looted in Abidjan when fighting broke out following the crisis of 2010. A rare testemony to the history of the Wé people of Côte d'Ivoire, its loss is irreplaceable.

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Supporting an armed conflict has never been so decorative.

Woman with polos

2659-2350 B.C

A priceless antiquity similar to this was stolen from Syria, when the fighting was at its peak in 2014, before being smuggled into the European market. Illicit trade in antiquities is one of the main sources of funding of armes groups.

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Art knows no frontiers. Neither does organized crime

Inca ceramic jug

Peru, 1470-1532 A.D.

This piece of pre-Colombian art was looted in an illegal excavation.It passed through various middlemen and crossed Ecuador, before ending up in the hands of traffickers and showing up on the international art market.

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Terrorism is such a great curator

Head of Budda

Afghanistan, 3rd-4th century A.D.

This antiquity belongs to the National Museum of Afghanistan. The Taliban smashed a large part of the museum's collection, and local dealers smuggled the priceless item into the international market. Thousands of looted objects from the museum are still missing.

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Clarification on the UNESCO Campaign

In an initial version of UNESCO’s campaign, the ‘Real Price of Art’, some posters displayed items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) database, which is in the public domain. UNESCO’s intention was to alert the general public by depicting objects of high cultural value, which should be on display in museums, presented in luxurious private interiors. UNESCO had no intention of questioning the provenance of items in the MET collection. 

After discussions with the MET, who is a valuable partner to UNESCO, and in order to avoid any misunderstanding, UNESCO decided to remove all pictures of items from the MET collection. Only three magazines had already been printed. The digital versions of these publications were modified.

The rationale of the campaign is to capture the attention the general public with a view to encouraging them to exercise due diligence when purchasing cultural property. The campaign has been widely spread and original posters are shown above.

UNESCO regrets the use of MET images that caused any misunderstanding.

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