•The false claim that illicit trade in cultural property is third only to that in drugs and weapons
So many conflicting claims have been made about Interpol’s art crime figures, including the looting and trafficking of antiquities, that it is difficult to know what to believe these days.
Part of the problem was that for years Interpol published conflicting claims on the Art Crime home page of its website, as the screenshots here show:
Headlining was the claim that “The black market in works of art is becoming as lucrative as those for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods”. Earlier claims by Interpol valued the global illicit market in cultural property at around $4 billion to $5 billion annually.
The admission that Interpol has never had any figures to demonstrate its headline claim, nor is ever likely to obtain such figures, appeared in a click-through section lower down on the same page (see above).
Unfortunately, bodies such as the European Commission, the Carabinieri and UNESCO have promoted the headline claim while ignoring the admission lower down, leading to the widespread dissemination of what amounted to a false claim. This matters because the false claim has directly influenced new policy and further restrictions on the art market.
Fortunately, after having the discrepancy pointed out to it for several years, Interpol finally removed the conflicting claims from its website in March 2019. However, the headline claim’s pervasiveness, in what amounted to a long-term viral online campaign against the art market, means that it is still widely quoted and believed to this day.
Transnational operations (Operation Pandora etc)
For the past decade and more Interpol has co-ordinated with Europol and national police forces in dozens of countries on an annual basis to mount operations aimed at stemming the flow of illicit cultural property that might be involved in money laundering and terrorism financing.
With names such as Odysseus, Athena and Pandora, these huge operations target individuals, households, business and transport. The resulting media releases enumerate vast numbers of seizures, as well as arrests, while also providing examples, including photographs of important items that have been seized.
While this all looks impressive, what neither Interpol nor Europol have ever done is to follow these data up with the crucial information about how many of these seized items later turned out to be illicit and linked to money laundering or terrorism financing. Nor do they ever publish conviction rates for those arrested.
The ADA and IADAA have twice asked Europol for these figures.
The first occasion was in February 2017, when Europol told us: “As your questions are very detailed and some are focused on particular countries, I suggest you get in contact with the countries involved. We can only communicate on a general level and don’t hold all the details of the different participating countries.”
The second occasion was in May 2023, when Europol told us: “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to help as we do not have these figures. Europol is not a statistical organisation – Europol’s priority is to support cross-border investigations and the information available is solely based on investigations supported by Europol.”
This included data on Operation Pandora V, which took place across 32 countries and resulted in more than 56,400 cultural goods being seized and 67 arrests. 27,300 of the items seized came in a single haul in France where Customs officers arrested a man who had been illegally digging up archaeological pieces.
The leading publicised highlight from the operation was a set of three gold coins that “could have been worth up to €200,000 on the black market”, which were recovered after the arrest of two men in Spain.
Data in the Interpol report relating to global crime referred to arrests, but shed no light on convictions or how much of what was seized later proved to be illicit. No mention of terrorism financing was made.
Despite supposedly cleaning up its act with the 2019 relaunch of its website, Interpol has continued to promote false and unsubstantiated claims.
In the introduction to its 2021 report it stated: “The illicit trafficking of cultural property is a major source of revenue for organized crime groups and terrorists alike…” (see page 4) – It is clear from Interpol’s other statements on data that it has no evidence to show cultural property to be a major revenue source for terrorists.
Following these conflicting claims and lack of vital intelligence, what does Interpol publish on its website in 2024?
Despite providing no data, and having admitted that it has never had it, nor is ever likely to obtain it, Interpol’s headline claim on its Cultural Heritage home page is: “Trafficking in cultural property is a low-risk, high-profit business for criminals with links to organized crime.”
Click through to the section on Crimes: The issues – cultural property, and it is largely populated by general statements. The one hard claim is that “the majority of thefts are carried out from private homes”.
The related news section at the bottom includes links to other news, including the most recent release on a transnational operation, Pandora VII, from May 2023, which again limits data to arrests and seizures, but gives no information on outcomes.
Nowhere on its website does Interpol provide clear data as to the scope and value of illicit cultural property.
However, despite admitting that it does not have the data, and despite WCO and other figures showing it not to be true, and despite updating the Art Crime home page, Interpol still promotes false claims via an out-of-date video from 2015 on its web page How we fight cultural crime.
Worse still is that the person making the claims in the video is Interpol’s Secretary General Jürgen Stock, who states that the illicit trade in cultural property is as lucrative as those for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods, and then directly links them to terrorist financing, even though no evidence of this happening has been provided beyond the very limited Abu Sayyaf case of May 2015. In doing so, he directly links these purported crimes to the international art market, despite providing no evidence to support this.
The Secretary General makes his claims based on UN sanctions relating to Syria (2199) and Iraq, but these are preventive measures, not evidence of executed crimes. At the time of adoption in 2014, the sanctions’ text stated that terrorists were benefiting from trade in cultural property but gave no examples of this happening. As noted above, the Abu Sayyaf raid in 2015 – after the sanctions were introduced – remains the only cited example of this happening, and the sums involved were small and not clearly identified.
It is not clear from the website that the video is from 2015, so viewers may think this is current thinking at Interpol. Mr Stock must surely know better now nine years on from this recording and should remove it from the website. The ADA and fellow trade association IADAA have contacted him directly recently and asked him to update the website, but so far we had no reply.
To repeat: Nowhere on its website does Interpol provide clear data as to the scope and value of illicit cultural property
Sources quoted by authorities to clamp down on the art market rarely stand up to scrutiny
How does false data come to influence policy and even law making on such a widespread basis when it comes to cultural property?
One reason is confirmation bias: if the results of your research match what you hope to find, you are less likely to check their validity – a point made by statistics guru Dr Tim Harford when discussing claims made about antiquities and crime.
Another can be the authority of the source. This is very common in the cultural heritage sphere.
This two-part article analyses two studies from what should be an impeccable single source, showing how false data can spread from one official report to another to gain traction, and ultimately become an unchallenged authority among those who should know better.
They also demonstrate that many apparently learned pieces of research published by acknowledged authorities simply can’t be trusted, because it is clear that these professionals are not checking their sources adequately.
Both reports were published by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The two relevant claims it included were as follows:
• The Museums Association has estimated that profits from the illicit antiquities trade range for $225 million and $3 billion per year.
• The Organized Crime Group of the United Kingdom Metropolitan Police and INTERPOL has calculated that profits from the illicit antiquities trade amounted to between $300 million and $6 billion per year.
Footnotes indicated the source for each of these statements.
For the first it was “See Neil Brodie, Jenny Doole and Peter Watson, Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material (Cambridge, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2000); and Simon Mackenzie, “Trafficking antiquities” in International Crime and Justice, Mangai Nataajan, ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011).”
For the second it was “United Kingdom, House of Commons, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade, seventh report, vols. 1, 2 and 3 (London, 2000).”
These were very precise references, if rather out of date for a 2016 report by the UNODC.
The problem is that whoever researched the UNODC report failed to check where its quoted sources got their data from. If they had, they would have found the following:
– The Brodie, Doole and Watson report from 2000 did not refer to the Museums Association $225 million and $3 billion per year claim at all. Instead, on page 23 in the introduction to section 1.9, The Financial value of the illicit trade, it stated: “Geraldine Norman has estimated that the illicit trade in antiquities, world-wide, may be as much as $2 billion a year.” The footnote for this statement identified the source as journalist Geraldine Norman’s November 24, 1990, Independent article Great sale of the century. However, apart from the fact that the article was actually titled Great sale of the centuries, it included no such claim or figure.
– In fact, the Museums Association did give estimated figures as part of its evidence to the UK House of Commons, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade, seventh report, vols. 1, 2 and 3 (London, 2000) – the same source as the second claim quoted by the UNODC. In the Seventh Report, Chapter II The problem of illicit trade, The nature and scale of illicit trade, paragraph 9 reads: “The scale of the illicit trade taken is said to be very considerable. According to the Museums Association, as an underground, secretive activity, it is impossible to attach a firm financial value to the illicit trade in cultural material. Estimates of its worldwide extent vary from £150 million up to £2 billion per year.” The Museums Association gave as its source the Brodie, Doole and Watson 2000 report, quoted above, which in turn gave the Geraldine Norman article as the source, when, in fact, it provided no such figures.
So, the Museums Association’s actual claim was that “it is impossible to attach a firm financial value to the illicit trade in cultural material”, but that estimates worldwide [by others] varied greatly between £150 million and £2 billion.
This was rather different from the UNODC claim based on this source: “The Museums Association has estimated that profits from the illicit antiquities trade range for $225 million and $3 billion per year.”
To summarise, then, the £150 million to £2 billion claim ultimately came from nowhere. Its claimed primary source, the Geraldine Norman article from 1990, quoted no such figures. The secondary source which mistakenly quoted them was the Brodie, Doole & Watson report from ten years later in 2000, leading to the tertiary source of the Museums Association. In turn, this was quoted by the UNODC in 2016 – 26 years after the Norman article which gave no figures anyway. The UNODC report then became a new ‘primary’ source, with the figures quoted as UNODC estimates, which they weren’t at all.
On page 36 of the UNODC’s 2011 report, it gave a value range of $3.4 billion to $6.3 billion as the Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimates of the global proceeds of crime for art and cultural property, based on information from Interpol and the International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council (ISPAC) of the UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme.
The UNODC report stated that its Interpol and UN-related figures came from the February 2011 Global Financial Integrity (GFI) report, Transnational crime in the Developing World, and World Bank indicators (for current GDP).
Page 47 of the GFI report included a section headed Estimated Value of the Illicit Trade of Cultural Property, which began: “The actual value of the global illicit trade in cultural property is unknown and most experts are hesitant to estimate a value.”
Despite this, the UNODC provided an estimate range of $3.4-6.3 billion for the proceeds of transnational crime involving art and cultural property, citing the GFI report “based on Interpol, International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme”.
The remainder of that opening paragraph from the GFI report explained where this range of figures came from: “Estimates that do exist range in size from $300 million to $6 billion per year, with Interpol estimating $4 to $5 billion,and the International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme (ISPAC) estimating $6 to $8 billion. This report creates a range by taking the average of the low estimates and the average of the high estimates reported above. The result is an annual value of $3.4 to $6.3 billion.”
Checking the sources of these sources we come up with the following:
– $300 million to $6 billion: Not stipulated, but almost certainly from the UK House of Commons, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade, seventh report, vols. 1, 2 and 3 (London, 2000) (see Part 1 of this article), where they were quoted anecdotally by a Scotland Yard office whose colleague then provided evidence to refute them.
UNODC Deputy Director John Sandage wrote the foreword to the published ISPAC paper from that 2008/9 programme. Its second paragraph read: “The value of international trade in looted, stolen or smuggled art is estimated at between US$4.5 billion to US$6 billion per year.”
Page 30 of the same report cited a figure of $7.8 billion from The 1999 United Nations Global Report, but it was wrong. In fact, the 1999 UN report quoted the range of $4.5 billion to $6 billion (see page 229), attributing it to a New York Times article of November 20, 1995, by Alan Riding titled Art theft is booming, bringing an effort to respond. Riding proved to be a dead end, giving no source beyond “experts”.
Meanwhile, Page 31 of the ISPAC report quoted a figure of £3 billion for London in the early 1990s according to Scotland Yard, and FBI figures of $5 billion and $6 billion for the whole art theft market for 2008.
In total then, the estimated $6 billion to $8 billion figures quoted by the UNODC in 2011 appear to come from a mix of sources, including the FBI and a non-existent rounded up figure from the 1999 United Nations Global Report. The FBI did not give a source for its figures, while the 1999 UN report gave a different range of figures, sourced from a 1995 New York Times article whose only source is unnamed experts.
As they refer to the “art theft market”, they clearly include all associated crime, such as commercial and domestic burglaries, with associated insurance losses – as can be seen from the evidence provided by Scotland Yard to the House of Commons in 2000 – and the ISPAC report confirmed that Interpol attributed the highest levels of cultural property theft to Italy and France.
Now move forward to 2023 and the Financial Action Task Force report, entitled Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing in the Art and Antiquities Market, and the $6.3 billion figure arises once again in paragraph 3 of the Introduction on page 5. The FATF burnishes that figure by stating that it is a UNODC estimate, whose own source (the 2011 report) shows that this is not true. In reality, it is a figure quoted by the UNODC from other uncertain and inaccurate sources, as shown above.
So, a report by the FATF published in February 2023, aimed at influencing current international policy – and now being used by the EU to tighten its anti-money laundering regulations further – quotes a 12-year-old set of figures based on guestimates and unattributed sources dating from the early 1990s to 2008. And it uses this as the key statistic relating to current global art crime to make its point.
As can be seen by the tortuous byways of out-of-date reports and newspaper articles dating back almost 35 years and quoting myriad figures that have contributed to this misleading picture, the truth can be lost very quickly. Nonetheless, the authority of the UNODC means these statistics are quoted as key evidence.
And this is just one example of how this is happening.
The cheap and easy way to gain diplomatic influence can cost individuals and vulnerable groups dearly
Cultural heritage Memoranda of Understanding are good for diplomacy but can damage the rights of citizens
As anyone from the art market involved in the international world of cultural heritage will know, dealers, auction houses, buyers and sellers have long been the unjustified targets of governments, NGOs and law enforcement.
The message has been that the looting and trafficking of cultural property from vulnerable nations – many of whom are in an almost permanent state of crisis or war – is funding terrorism. Stolen items smuggled to Western markets lead to a flow of cash in the other direction to pay for bombs and bullets, they argue.
The problem is that despite innumerable research projects, studies and other initiatives to show this over the past 20 years and more, evidence of the art market’s role in this is so thin on the ground as to be all but non-existent.
Independent studies, such as the ground-breaking RAND Corporation report of 2020, state that open source evidence clearly demonstrates that the antiquities market could not possibly sustain the billion-dollar level of international crime it is accused of fomenting.
This has not prevented bodies like the European Union, the United States Government and others competing for influence in strategically important countries like Egypt, Iraq and Syria from introducing proposal after proposal – so numerous that they seem to be falling over each other for precedence – to tackle the perceived problem.
Campaigner highlighting injustice
Collector and cultural property lawyer Peter Tompa has been at the vanguard in highlighting abuses of power and influence when it comes to policy in this field.
His latest article, published by Cultural Property News, shows how the US State Department has been harnessing bilateral agreements (Memoranda of Understanding) involving works of art and ancient artefacts to curry favour in geopolitics. In doing so, it is acting against the will of Congress and against the interests of private citizens, including vulnerable ethnic and religious groups, he believes.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that MoUs effectively reverse the burden of proof over the ownership of cultural property at the point of import; you’re guilty until deemed innocent. Importers to the United States must secure a current licence from the source country covered by the MoU confirming that the imported item in question was originally exported legally from there, whenever that might have been – and it could have been centuries ago.
So, this would apply to a Roman vase that could have left Italy during the 18th century, having been purchased by a wealthy young man on the Grand Tour, and has since changed hands and moved countries numerous times. How likely is it that the current importer would hold paperwork from that original sale and export that would convince the Italian authorities to issue such a licence? But that is what Article 1 of theMoU with Italy stipulates if Customs are not to seize the vase and send it back to Italy.
Similar agreements are in place with 30 other nations, from China to Yemen.
Tompa has previously highlighted the fact that MoUs can also deprive vulnerable minority groups, such as the expelled Jews of Libya, of their moral and legal rights in reclaiming their cultural patrimony. Instead, under the terms of the MoU, objects are returned to these peoples’ oppressors in the states from which they have been expelled or subjugated.
So, how can the State Department justify this rapid spread of these agreements?
Lack of funding for archaeologists has forced many of them to earn a living doing something else, Tompa notes. “Thanks to government largess, however, lucrative new opportunities have arisen for a select few archaeologists working with State Department bureaucrats to help justify cultural property Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) or “emergency import restrictions.”
‘Jihad against private ownership’
For many, this is an easy choice to make: “Not surprisingly, such work often draws those most committed to the view that cultural artifacts should be clawed back from U.S. collectors and museums for the benefit of countries that have been victimized in the past by Western colonialism. Most collectors, dealers and museum curators have no idea about all the State Department money that is funding this jihad against the private ownership of cultural goods in the U.S.”
Tompa looks at who is running what he describes as a “cottage industry”.
“The U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and its Cultural Heritage Center have done more than anyone to grow this new cottage industry through grants and contracts as part of their ‘soft power’ efforts that seek to make hostile third world governments ‘like us more’,” he writes.
He also explains how the State Department circumvents restrictions imposed by Congress on the former’s ability to exploit MoUs for its own ends.
As always, following the money provides a clearer picture. The State Department needs better evidence of looting and trafficking to justify MoUs. It also needs to show that recipient source countries have appropriate controls in place to protect their cultural patrimony.
Tompa notes that critics have asked how much of an incentive those being funded have to come up with what the State Department wants. He describes the long-established American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR) as a major grant recipient and “evidence maker” for some of the most difficult to justify MoUs and cites examples of how those receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding may be creating false narratives to suit the State Department’s purposes.
Tompa provides several examples of concerning behaviour, in one case citing an archaeologist associated with ASOR, working under a $600,000 State Department contract, who was identified as the source for a widely reported false claim that the ISIS terror group’s profits from antiquities looting were “second only to the revenue the group derives from illicit oil sales”.
Where is the media on this?
This is explosive stuff and a potentially dream investigation for any curious journalist worth their salt, involving, as it does, vast sums of money, Washington insiders and international policy that favours countries with questionable human rights records. So far, though, both the mainstream and leading art market media outlets have remained silent, leaving experts likes Tompa to do all the heavy lifting. This is curious when one considers how frequently and keenly the widespread media reports any example (alleged or actual) of crime involving cultural property.
The harnessing of such bilateral agreements for geopolitical gain – with art traders and private citizens paying the price – has long been a subject of concern. Could fear among journalists of falling out with influential advocacy groups who act as regular story sources be the reason for their apparent lack of interest?
This hands-off approach from hacks may be emboldening the State department. Tompa writes: “The State Department acting as both decision maker and facilitator for cultural property MoUs raises other concerns. More recently, the State Department has dropped all pretense of following the intent of the CPIA (Cultural Property Implementation Act) by showering additional funding on archaeologists to facilitate new and renewed cultural property MoUs.”
What we are seeing on a widespread basis is not the development of evidence-based policy, but policy-based evidence as the stakes rise among MENA nations and in the Far East, as well as in Central and South America. Security, diplomatic influence and other issues may be the real concerns, but cultural heritage Memoranda of Understanding are the currency by which a favourable position can easily and inexpensively be achieved. While that is understandable, the conditions under which they are being issued raise serious ethical, moral – and in the case of the U.S. Constitutional – questions, particularly about the rights of citizens and vulnerable groups, as well as fundamental principles of law.
Let’s not forget that the same U.S. citizens having their goods seized are also unwittingly funding this unjust process.So far, no one in authority has made any serious challenge to this process. It is about time that changed.
How do those buying antiquities protect themselves and the public?
Anyone buying items online needs to ensure that what they are paying for is genuine and that the seller has the right to sell them. That’s true for ordinary household goods and consumer wares, and especially true when it comes to the trade in antiquities.
The two trade associations supporting the Antiquities Forum, the UK-based Antiquities Dealers’ Association (ADA) and the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA), have long pioneered policy on this. Having a clear and effective crime-prevention policy is the best way of safeguarding their members and their members’ reputation, as well as boosting confidence in the trade among the public. It is also essential for preventing ancient artefacts being exploited by the unscrupulous.
In doing this, the two essential considerations are Provenance and Due Diligence. But what do they mean?
Provenance is the history of an object, tracing its ownership back as far as possible to ensure that it remains an item that can legitimately be traded. The ADA sets out a detailed summary of the different types of provenance an object can have, what that means and why it is important, on this website.
Due diligence, meanwhile, is the process which trade professionals undertake to ensure that the items they are handling are authentic and can be traded legitimately. It is important to remember that in the event of any legal dispute, the effectiveness of the due diligence undertaken by those responsible will be taken into account.
Effective due diligence is a vital part of protecting traders’ good reputations, which are essential for success in business.
What the associations have to say
The ADA sets out the process of due diligence for its members as follows:
Before offering property for sale, members must be satisfied that they have conducted the level of due diligence required to establish that the property they are handling is authentic and that there are no known legal obstacles to selling and passing title.
The ADA requires members to adhere to the relevant domestic and international laws that govern the markets for archaeological and ancient property and, in many respects, ADA standards go beyond the legal requirements.
If members are not certain as to the laws of a particular jurisdiction, or their application to a specific item, please consult the ADA Council for advice.
Members must act in good faith throughout all transactions.
Members should record each transaction with diligence and keep records for a minimum of 6 years.
Where a member is buying from another dealer or an auction house then the member should record the transaction and note the provenance as provided. Some items will have more detailed provenance than others.
Where a member is buying from a person other than a dealer or an auction house then the member should establish the identity of the vendor. Unless the vendor is well known to the dealer, where an item is worth over £3,000 then member should request photographic identification and if practical take and retain a copy of it. Members should obtain in writing:
The name and address of the vendor;
A warranty that the vendor has good title to the objects;
Confirmation of where, when and how the vendor obtained the objects, as can be provided by the vendor;
Where the vendor acquired the objects outside the United Kingdom, confirmation that the item has been exported or imported in conformity with local laws and where available evidence of that.
In addition, wherever possible members should arrange payment by a method that leaves an audit.
Members undertake to carry out due diligence, as set out under this Code, to ensure, as far as they are able, that objects in which they trade were not stolen from excavations, architectural monuments, public institutions or private property and are lawfully on the market for sale.
Members will make all reasonable enquiries to ascertain earlier ownership history of any object they are considering purchasing, mindful that the illicit removal of archaeological objects from their original context is damaging to our knowledge and understanding of the past.
Members have a duty to record and preserve relevant prior ownership history of an object along with any evidence supplied.
Stolen Art Databases
“It is a condition of membership that all goods acquired at the purchase price of £3,000 or more be checked with an appropriate stolen art database, unless they have already been so checked.’
No system is perfect and many items have very little documented information establishing a detailed history going back decades or longer. This does not necessarily mean that there is anything wrong as there can be a number of valid reasons for this: for instance, paperwork may have been lost or not kept – in the past, such information was not deemed important, as it is today.
As can be seen from the due diligence requirements set out above, however, a higher level of checking is demanded for higher value items.
Market professionals also tend to have effective antennae for picking up ‘red flags’. Remember, just like anyone else, they do not want to hand over ready money for something that may later turn out to be a problem.
Additional things they look out for include items that are significantly under-priced, as this may point to someone handling stolen goods trying to offload them. Another thing to check is how credible the seller is as a source of the material being offered.
The ADA and IADAA have both been proactive in developing due diligence over the years. Indeed, UNESCO’s code of conduct in this field was based on the earlier code published by IADAA.