Latest World Customs Organisation report exposes the lies and propaganda peddled over illicit trade in antiquities

The World Customs Organisation published its latest report into illicit trade in December.

The size of any problem can be assessed under four variables: the number of cases, the number of seizures, the volume of seized material and the value of that material. As the ADA and IADAA have always argued, by any of these variables, Cultural Heritage – of which Antiquities form only a part – barely registers as a problem area among the risk categories listed.

IADAA has conducted its own potted analysis of the 205-page WCO report as a user-friendly guide to the findings, which includes a direct link to the original report for verification purposes.

As the analysis and the original report show, at one end of the scale Drugs-related cases make up 47.7% of global trafficking; at the other, Cultural Heritage represents 0.2%. Likewise, when it comes to the number of seizures, Drugs accounts for 42.8%, while Cultural Heritage covers 0.2%. The next smallest category in each of these measures is Environmental Products, which accounts for 2.7% and 2.3% respectively. Even these figures are, respectively, 16 times and 14 times larger than the Cultural Heritage measures.

All of the above also needs to be taken in the context of a more proficient international Customs operation that is better able to cope with Cultural Heritage than ever before, according to the WCO, with twice as many countries submitting data as the previous year (25 compared with 13). Despite this, the number of cases has slightly fallen, while the number of seizures has only risen from 158 to 167. Compare that to over 40,000 cases and over 43,000 seizures involving Drugs.

 

Comparative values

An exact assessment of values is not possible because the information is simply not available – although the report estimates the global illicit trade in Environmental Products to be worth between $91 billion and $250 billion. What is clear, however, is that, Cultural Heritage aside, the value of material seized in every other category must be worth at least in the hundreds of millions of dollars if not more.

When it comes to Cultural Heritage, although the number of cases has fallen and the number of seizures has only risen slightly, the number of items seized has increased from 9,931 to 14,754. These include all types of items across the range of categories covered by Cultural Heritage, from books & manuscripts and paintings to household items, jewellery, weapons, engravings and lithographs, as well as film and sound archives, the last of which makes up a very large number of items seized (3,169, according to the WCO report).

Antiquities make up 8725 items, a rise from 8005 in 2016.

It is reasonable to assume that the WCO will include images of its most important seizures in the report. If so, then the quality of what has been seized is generally very low grade indeed. Bizarrely, they include a haul of long playing records seized in transit from the Netherlands to Turkey. As it is not illegal to export LPs from the Netherlands, it is not clear why they were seized.

The overwhelming majority of Antiquities items pictured are broken potsherds and coins – items that would not be covered by the UNESCO Convention.

As the IADAA analysis points out: “The only items of significant value pictured in the report have nothing to do with customs work, nor were they seized, but voluntarily returned when their owners/holders discovered that they might be tainted, so it is misleading for them to have been included”.

In summary, although this is not a scientific assessment, if the images used to illustrate the quality of antiquities seizures in the WCO report are anything to go by, a generous over-estimate of the value of items seized would be around $500,000. To put that in context, that is around 0.001% of the value of the next smallest category at most.

 

How Interpol are adding to the problem

If Customs are much more efficient and twice the number of countries – from all regions – are submitting data, where is the massive haul of cases and seizures one should expect if Cultural Heritage trafficking is the problem that anti-trade campaigners, politicians and others would have it? As the WCO itself concluded in its 2016 report: “As Customs officers become increasingly proficient in seizing both large and small shipments of cultural objects, the data can suggest that illicit trade is on the rise when, in reality, levels of trafficking may be holding constant or even decreasing.”

This also gives the lie to Interpol’s claim (as published on its Works of Art Crime home page) that “The black market in works of art is becoming as lucrative as those for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods” – a claim it confusingly contradicts on the FAQs accessed via the same page. This is important because the European Commission and Parliament, among others, have used this headline claim by Interpol as evidence justifying the introduction of stringent new import licensing regulations in the EU.

IADAA was able to demonstrate during the consultation and negotiations over the import licensing proposals that even the European Commission’s own researches failed to find any problem at all, yet it insisted on pressing ahead with unnecessary and damaging legislation.

This summary analysis is being forwarded to those conducting the follow-up study commissioned by the European Commission after it expressed doubts about its original research. Hopefully these WCO statistics and other findings will make a difference.

The ADA makes final call over EU import licensing proposals

The ADA has been working closely with IADAA to contribute important last-minute contributions to the Trilogue negotiations in Brussels on the import licensing issue.

The talks must settle on a proposal that compromises between proposals and amendments from the European Commission, Council of the European Union and committees within the European Parliament.

We still have significant concerns over compromise amendments being put forward for the final vote and so have joined with IADAA, CINOA and the European art Market Coalition (EAMC) to present a series of comments and objections for the art market to the office of Daniel Dalton MEP, rapporteur of the proposals, at his request, for consideration.

Key areas of concern included potential human rights breaches occasioned by proposals to restrict how owners may keep antiquities; further rights breaches based on proposals to reverse the burden of proof in showing an item to be untainted; inconsistencies with the application of the UNESCO Convention; value thresholds for qualifying works; delays in processing of licence applications and importer statements; and concerns over possible enforcement prior to a compulsory electronic system being fully operational.

A number of important questions remain on top of this, such as who will provide the necessary expertise for customs and how valuations will be conducted and confirmed. At present, the proposals are so complex and confusing that in places they contradict each other, which will not aid compliance. We have asked for any final proposals to be made simple, clear and user-friendly.

WCO report reveals the true picture about antiquities trafficking

For some time now, anti-trade campaigners, NGOs, politicians and even international law enforcement agencies have stated that trafficked antiquities are the third largest source of terrorist financing after trafficked drugs and weapons. These claims have always been unsubstantiated and although Interpol quotes a similar claim on its Art Crime page (“The black market in works of art is becoming as lucrative as those for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods”), it then contradicts this in detail in the Frequently Asked Questions on the same page.

Now, however, the World Customs Organisation has included figures for trafficked cultural property, including antiquities, in its annual report for the first time and this gives us a clearer picture of what the situation really is. In summary, this is what it says:

Number of Seizures

Drugs: c.45,000

Weapons and ammunition: c.4500

Cultural property: 146

Of which antiquities (mostly coins, seals and jewels): c.70

So in terms of the number of seizures across these three areas, drugs account for 90.6% of seizures, weapons and ammunition 9.1%, cultural property 0.3%, of which antiquities account for 0.14%.

Volumes

Although there is no direct correlation between the three areas in terms of volumes seized, summary totals give some indication of comparative scale:

Drugs: c.1.5 million kilos

Weapons and ammunition: c.2.5 million pieces

Cultural property: 8483 items

Of which Antiquities: c.6600 items (including coins)

Details:

  • Drugs: 1 million kilos of cannabis, 180,773 kilos of cocaine, 99,000 kilos of khat, approx. 200,000 kilos of opiates, psychotropic and other substances. Total c.1.5 million kilos. Number of seizures: c.45,000.
  • Weapons & ammunition: number of pieces seized c.2.5 million. Number of seizures: c.4500.
  • Cultural Property: 8483 objects seized (Of which Antiquities c.6600). Number of seizures: 146. (Of which Antiquities c.70)

Also included in the report are figures for seizures linked to environmental (i.e. animal and plant) products. Again, exact comparisons are not easy, but the number of seized items alone rises towards the 750,000 mark, while the total number of seizures reported was 2225.

Art businesses ill-prepared for GDPR, new EU data protection law

ADA adviser Ivan Macquisten has written a detailed analysis on the upcoming changes in data protection regulations for the EU for The Art Newspaper. This includes the Information Commissioner’s Office advice on what steps for businesses to take now. These changes will affect all businesses operating in the market to some degree. You can read Ivan’s article at this link.

Theft of Viking Treasure Devastates Norwegian Museum

The Committee For Cultural Policy has highlighted the devastating theft of Viking material from the University Museum of Bergen. The burglary took place on the weekend of August 11-13 when the thieves climbed scaffolding to a seventh-floor window, broke in and stole 400 artefacts that were in temporary storage.

Full details available from the Committee For Cultural Policy website.

 

Further theft alert

This Egyptian stele, pictured right has been stolen from the Musée de Marseille. It is 24cm x 17.5cm x 7cm. Please contact the police if you see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terrorism, Cultural Heritage and the Threat to Museums’ Public Missions

Collector Matthew Polk, a board member of the Committee For Cultural Policy and trustee of a number of museums, has written a detailed paper on how the war on terror has shifted cultural property policy from preservation to enforcement, with a number of unwarranted and unfortunate policies that have the potential to damage the trade and museums.

From grossly exaggerated figures for the revenues raised by ISIS from looted artefacts to the silencing of dissent on such topics, Polk studies their sources and effects, and notes how law enforcement policy has moved from evidence-based debate to political expediency.

“Reading this you could be forgiven for thinking that museums should just give up and close their doors,” writes Polk. “Museums take their public missions seriously and should be at the forefront of world cultural heritage preservation efforts. Instead, museums are being pushed aside as legislative efforts driven by a fear of terrorism create a nightmarish regulatory environment in which museums, their staffs, trustees and donors are often portrayed as villains.”

Proposals under the US TAAR Act are even worse: “It is a shocking but real possibility that US citizens and institutions could suddenly find themselves subject to thousands of foreign laws not even available in English which could be applied retroactively at the whim of government officials as will apparently now be the case in the EU,” Polk notes.

He also accuses law enforcement of preferring “high profile actions, such as the Elliot Ness style raids conducted during 2016 NYC Asia Week or Fish and Wild Life’s SWAT raids on Gibson Guitars in 2009 and 2011” and says this suggests that “they are more interested in high profile press coverage than in seeking cooperation to help stamp out illegal or destructive activities”.

“This is unfortunate as it has created an atmosphere of fear bringing less transparency to the art markets when what we need is more,” he concludes, adding: “Enforcement has also relied increasingly on civil forfeiture actions to seize objects even when no crime has been proven and customs continues to use administrative obstacles and minor paperwork errors as justifiable cause for seizing objects entering the country without having to prove they are in any way illegal.”

The full article appears on the Committee For Cultural Policy website.