The following is the original version of a letter sent by ADA chair Joanna van der Lande and published by the Art Newspaper on page 16 of their July/August 2020 issue

While Europol, Interpol and the World Customs Organisation are very good at grabbing headlines, experience tells us that subsequent requests for more detail on the major international operations cracking down on cultural heritage trafficking tend to fall on deaf ears.

The latest set of seizures and arrests across 103 countries as reported in the Art Newspaper on May 8 (International crackdown on art trafficking leads to 101 arrested and 19,000 artefacts recovered) gives rise to the same set of questions we and other trade associations have been asking for years now:

  • How much of this material is fake?
  • How much can be traced back to vulnerable archaeological sites?
  • Who has been arrested and how many of them are actually part of the art market as opposed to ordinary criminals or gangs?
  • How much can be traced back to terrorist groups?
  • How much of it qualifies as cultural property under the terms of the UNESCO Convention?

While the headlines sound impressive, the organisations involved continue in their failure to answer on-going questions about the true effectiveness of these operations. Previous investigations undertaken by the Antiquities Dealers’ Association (ADA) and the International Association of Dealers in Ancient art (IADAA), including direct consultation with the authorities, have exposed worrying gaps in intelligence gathering.

In February 2018, for instance, in responding to an IADAA request for confirmation about the number of countries involved in the original Operation ATHENA, as well as information regarding the volume, value and nature of major items seized during that operation, Europol’s Corporate Affairs Bureau told them: “Unfortunately we do not have such information at hand as we only have a fragmented picture: this operation was coordinated between three partners – us, INTERPOL and the WCO.”

This was a surprising response from one of the main players involved, especially as they had already issued a large number of detailed claims in a press release.

Publicity surrounding this latest operation, conducted in November 2019, focuses chiefly on antiquities and ancient art from around the globe, but does not attempt to distinguish between the genuine and the fake – a key factor in tackling crime, as St John Simpson of the British Museum, an adviser to UK law enforcement, has argued in other recent news reports linked to the seizure at Heathrow last year.

The authenticity of the unique and rare Tumaco gold mask, referred to among the Athena II highlights by Europol, for example, has been called into question by some well placed experts in the field. 

Previous operations gave the impression of having a major impact on antiquities trafficking and even the financing of terrorism, although closer inspection showed this not to be the case.

In November 2016, Operation Pandora involved a joint customs, Interpol and Europol operation across 18 European countries. Together they searched 48,588 people (81.6% of them in Bulgaria); 29,340 vehicles and 50 ships. This led to 75 arrests (65 of them in Bulgaria) and the seizure of 3,561 objects in total, comprising:

  • 1000 objects from a single seizure in Poland involving an illegal metal detectorist. These comprised spent bullet cartridges and rusted gun stocks from WW2, which qualify as cultural property under Polish law
  • 500 archaeological objects (mostly coins) in Murcia, Spain
  • 400 coins relating to online adverts
  • Of the remaining 1600 objects, Europol said that “several” were “of great cultural importance in the archaeological world, such as a marble Ottoman tombstone and a post-Byzantine icon depicting Saint George, along with two Byzantine artefacts”. None of these items was rare, valuable or culturally significant to the extent claimed. All were seized in Greece, another country that is not a war zone, nor did they appear to originate in war zones, although seizing such material was a main objective of the operation. This is not to say the looting of such cultural heritage is not of as much concern to members of the legitimate antiquities trade as it is to an archaeologist.

Notwithstanding this, if these comprised the highlights of the operation, as stated, where were the rare antiquities from war zones, or material associated with terrorism financing, whose intended seizure was the mainspring of this operation?

The tendency to count every coin in a seizure individually rather than as a single seizure also risks inflating the operation’s impact.

A similar pattern of claims accompanied by detailed statistical information released by Europol and the WCO arose for Operation Odysseus in June 2014 and the first Operation Athena in November 2017. However, the ADA and IADAA are not aware of any update on any of these operations, such as confirmation of how many of the arrests and investigations led to successful prosecutions, or whether any seizure at all has led back to trafficking from Syria or Iraq or the financing of terrorism, the twin lynchpins behind these operations. Surely such information constitutes the true measure of these operations’ success and should be made public?

The WCO Illicit Trade report 2017, published in December 2018, did reveal that the largest quantity of items of cultural property seized and reported through their network for that year was a consignment of around 3000 LPs being exported to Turkey from The Netherlands.

While Facebook and other social media platforms present a significant challenge in the fight against crime, it should be noted that Facebook has been proactive in seeking trade help in tackling the issue, having contacted us last year on this matter.

It is disturbing that in her official press release, Catherine de Bolle, Europol’s Executive Director, resurrects the now discredited link between antiquities and trafficking in weapons and drugs. It took years for Interpol to remove misleading claims of a similar nature from its website where, at the same time, it admitted that it had never had any information to show that cultural property trafficking was as significant as that in drugs and weapons, nor was ever likely to have such information. The latest WCO Illicit Trade Report, covering 2018 and seizures reported through its network, showed that while drugs accounted for 32% of all trafficking seizures globally and weapons for 3.6%, cultural heritage – including all art, antiques and collectables, not just antiquities – accounted for 0.08%.

If international law enforcement is so keen to promote its work on these operations, then it should be equally eager to publish their ultimate results in terms of successful prosecutions and evidence clearly demonstrating links to terrorism funding.

Such follow-ups are important because the successes claimed by these operations have been used frequently in the media and by politicians in the EU, as well as elsewhere, to support demands for further restrictive legislation controlling the international art market. If the market is to pay the price, it has a right to know why.

Joanna van der Lande
Antiquities Dealer’s Association
15 May 2020