• 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.
This has never been true, and recent figures in the World Customs Organisation’s annual Illicit Trade Reports demonstrate this clearly. In fact, cultural property crime, which includes categories such as household goods is, by a very long way indeed, the smallest risk category.
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.”
Interpol has published numerous media releases on the same subjects and has included operational results in separate reports, including its 2020 report, Assessing Crimes Against Cultural Property.
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.
Page 14 of the report revealed that of the 567,465 items seized in Europe, 83% (or 472,933) were library materials. This single category of library items accounted for 55% of the global total of 854,742 objects seized for the whole of 2020.
- Ongoing issues
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