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Trafficking in cultural property

Regulatory framework

Two thieves used a ladder to climb to the roof and break into the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and in just a few minutes stole two Van Gogh paintings valued at $30 million. Police caught two men who were ultimately convicted, but the paintings were never recovered. Iraqi museums and archaeological sites suffered major losses of historical artefacts due to looting during the armed conflict and civil unrest in the country. Some artefacts stolen from the Iraq National Museum were returned, but nearly 10,000 objects remain missing (Bogdanos and Patrick; 2006; McCalister, 2005; US DoJ, 2008). These examples illustrate the theft of antiquities and art, two related, although quite different types of cultural property. The term "cultural property" refers to "property that, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science" (article 1, UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970).

Cultural property is part of the common heritage of humankind. It is a unique testimony to the identity of peoples and the importance of protecting it has been stressed in several international instruments. Some examples of such treaties include UNESCO's Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970), and UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995).

In recent years, organized criminal groups have been found to be increasingly involved in destruction, looting, trafficking and sale of cultural property, both through legitimate markets, such as auctions or via the Internet, and in underground illicit markets. The increased awareness of the transnational criminal elements of the crime of trafficking in cultural property triggered States to recognize the importance of the Organized Crime Convention in providing an effective crime prevention and criminal justice response to this crime.

Furthermore, the adoption by the General Assembly of the International Guidelines for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Responses with Respect to Trafficking in Cultural Property and Other Related Offences in December 2014 has offered a new tool to strengthen the international community's response to this form of crime. The Guidelines, although non-binding on Member States, are available for their consideration in the development and strengthening of crime prevention and criminal justice policies, strategies, legislation and cooperation mechanisms to prevent and combat trafficking in cultural property and related offences (UNODC, 2016).

Market and trends

Trafficking in cultural property involves several acts that may ultimately result in the loss, destruction, removal or theft of irreplaceable items. But who is responsible for the thefts, what is their motivation, and where do these objects go?

There is little systematic study of those who engage in the theft, trafficking, and sale of cultural property. A number of cases of museum and private residence thefts appear unsophisticated with small groups of thieves taking advantage of poor security measures (Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, 2003). On the other hand, the ability to sell this stolen or looted merchandise for higher prices than those offered by pawn shops requires contacts and connections beyond the ability of small-scale criminals. Selling stolen art, for instance, often involves the corrupt or negligent assistance or facilitation of those working at art galleries, auction houses, transport companies, curators, insurance companies, or government officials.

Trafficking in cultural property represents a source of enormous illicit profits for organized criminal groups, which is also used to launder the proceeds of crime. The problem of stolen cultural objects has grown so much that a number of international registries now exist where stolen items can be reported and photos displayed. INTERPOL, the largest institution for international police cooperation, created a database devoted to stolen art many years ago. The purpose of the database is to advertise descriptions and photos of the most recent (or sought after) stolen works of art as well as to give visibility to recovered works of arts for which the owner has not been identified. The database also contains a list of recovered items. The overarching purpose is to make it difficult for potential buyers or sellers of stolen art and antiquities to do so easily.

The choice to steal cultural property probably lies in the relative ease of the theft and the potential gain from it. For instance, the theft of one well-known painting, even when fenced for a fraction of its value, might bring more money to the thieves than any number of house burglaries. Therefore, improved security measures for museums and private collections, as well as archaeological sites, combined with higher demands in terms of due diligence from those involved in the art and cultural property market, would likely have some deterrent impact on this kind of theft. It is difficult to sell a well-known work of art because it is very recognizable. Therefore, it is likely that some stolen art is simply stored or sold very cheaply to someone willing to take the risk to re-sell it to a corrupt buyer and/or transport it to a country where vigilance is low in tracking stolen antiquities and fine art. There have also been cases where demand for stolen art is the result of wealthy, unethical potential buyers (Bowman, 2008; Kennedy, 2008; Lane, Bromley, Hicks, Mahoney, 2008; Manacorda and Visconti, 2014).

Challenges and opportunities

The growth in the number of thefts in recent years has garnered more systematic attention from law enforcement agencies, and museums and other non-profit agencies have established websites to display missing, stolen, and recovered artwork in order to inform potential buyers and sellers of the current situation (Mackenzie, 2009).

Better control of the international trafficking in stolen or looted cultural property over the long term will require more countries to become parties to bilateral and international agreements on the acceptable methods of handling and exchanging it. Enforcement of these agreements among ratifying countries must continue to improve and thereby deter unscrupulous buyers and sellers. Indeed, some of the most fruitful investigations have occurred using proactive law enforcement strategies to counter organized crime such as undercover and sting operations, and tips from insiders in the global network of art dealers, galleries, and auctioneers. These methods also include the United Nations Organized Crime Convention, which contains a reference, in the preamble to General Assembly resolution 55/25 that adopted the Convention, to its utility as an effective tool and the necessary legal framework for international cooperation in combating "offences against cultural heritage."

Comprehensive inventories of public collections need to be established where they do not yet exist, in order to improve ownership documentation and the reporting of missing or stolen pieces. In addition, greater public awareness is crucial to understand the importance and relevance of cultural heritage to the history of a country and its people, and the need to preserve it. This and other effective measures are contained in the International Guidelines for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Responses with Respect to Trafficking in Cultural Property and Other Related Offences, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution 69/196.

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