•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.
Russia’s propaganda campaign surrounding its invasion of Ukraine has prompted this action, but it is also an excellent opportunity to address all of the fake news surrounding antiquities. Those guilty of promoting it include the media, governments, NGOs, campaign groups and even law enforcement.
Cultural property has become an important soft power diplomacy tool in recent years. The incentive for interest groups and individuals to spread false evidence and data as propaganda has grown substantially as a result. Equally corrosive has the been the failure to check the validity of claims. Lack of time and resources is at fault, but so is confirmation bias. If the claim fits your narrative, why bother to check whether it is true or not?
How to begin
Ironically, this applied to the European Commission’s own Fact Sheet, Questions and Answers on the illegal import of cultural goods to finance terrorism. Published on July 13, 2017, it set out the evidence on which the EC relied to press ahead with its import licensing proposals for cultural property and the art market. Researching the sources of its data and claims back to their original sources show clearly that they are groundless.
UNESCO’s 50th anniversary campaign, The Real Price of Art, and its bogus $10 million figure as the annual value of cultural property trafficking, have attracted extensive reporting in the media, but both are bogus and easily checked.
Many other questions arise over claims made by public bodies that should know better. The ADA and IADAA have exposed a large number of them for what they are. It is time that the authorities got a grip on this for the benefit of public confidence as well as better policy.
Having spent decades as a journalist and much of the past five years and more investigating fake news in relation to the international art market, I have made some fairly shocking discoveries.
Fake news is created in a number of ways:
• The deliberate dissemination of propaganda
• Marketing posing as news
• The accurate reporting of the above two without fact checking
• The inaccurate reporting of facts – journalistic error
As the internet has made reporters of us all, it is hardly surprising that untrained ‘news’ outlets unintentionally add to the fake news trail. Diminishing resources to fund proper journalism is another problem. Well-paid print journalists once had adequate resources to check facts and conduct in-depth investigations, funded by display advertising and – especially with local newspapers – a core income arising from classified, property, recruitment and motor ads. Those revenue streams have largely now gone online to specialist sites that do not fund the media, so journalism has suffered.
However, it is not just the public and the dying art of journalism that leads to fake news. The really shocking discovery is that, either by design, incompetence or complacency, other sources can include some of our most trusted and respected institutions, from parliament and international law enforcement to NGOs and academia.
My latest article, written for Cahn’s Quarterly and just published, lifts the lid on what has happened in one of the most sensitive corners of the art market, the international antiquities trade, and how fake news has even contributed to the formulation of new laws within the European Union.