The World Customs Organisation has finally published a new report following the 2019 report, covering two years from 2019-2021, probably delayed because of the Covid 19 pandemic. Its results once again show that global levels of illicit trade in cultural property are far lower than claimed.
In the press release we read: “This year, the analysis provided in this Report is based on data collected from 138 Member administrations. Previously composed of six sections, the Report now covers seven key areas of risk in the context of Customs enforcement: Anti-money laundering and terrorist financing; Cultural heritage; Drugs; Environment; IPR, health and safety; Revenue; and Security.”
It also states: “The analysis contained in this Report is mainly based on the collection of data from the WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) — a database of worldwide Customs seizures and offences”….
“However, the CEN database relies heavily on voluntary submissions by Members hence the quantity and quality of the data submitted to the system has its limitations”…
“However, as part of this new methodology, the data and information sources used to elaborate this Report has been enlarged to include various open sources.”
While the rest of the report might be “mainly based on the collection of data from the WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN)”, in the introduction to the Cultural Heritage chapter on page 57, the WCO goes further, admitting: “Unfortunately, the data received through the WCO’s Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) in 2020-2021 being incomplete, the following analysis will be mostly based on open source information.”
Case studies based on media reports rather than primary research
The result for the Cultural Heritage section is that most of the case studies are based on newspaper articles, sometimes even on events that happened decades ago, and have nothing to do with recent trafficking activities. This is alarming as much of the problem with false data plaguing the cultural property sector stems from misreporting in the media. It is even more alarming when the misleading picture created by a surface reading of the chapter will undoubtedly be used as ‘evidence’ in future campaigns against the art market, as past reports have been.
The WCO is supposed to report recent and reliable figures, like figure 3 on page 35, showing that the number of worldwide reported cultural goods cases for 2021 is a mere 156, that is 1.1 case per reporting country….
A newly introduced graph (shown here) in the WCO report (Page 17, Fig. 4) reveals precisely what the ADA and its fellow association IADAA have reported over the past years: the illicit trade in cultural heritage is so small that it barely shows in the statistics. Not only is it the smallest category – so small that you have to look carefully in case you miss it – but the graph also shows that seizures have fallen by around 50% between 2019 and 2021.
Let’s not forget, too, that the Cultural Heritage category is not limited to antiquities, as so many mistakenly believe; it covers 13 distinct sub-categories, including: all forms of art, antiques and collectables, household items, flora and fauna, books and manuscripts. In 2019, the top three categories of recovered item sub-categories were: Fauna, Flora, Minerals, Anatomy & Fossils; Other; and Hand-painted or Hand-drawn articles and works of art. No mention of antiquities, which did not even warrant its own sub-category.
All of this begs the question as to why, in its chapter on Cultural Heritage, the WCO has chosen to focus exclusively on photographs of seized antiquities (at least one of which seems to be a fake) alongside fossils and coins. The choice appears politically charged.Consistent reporting of
The WCO has stated in the past and here that there is under-reporting of crime in the culture sector and that it only counts seizures and cases reported via the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN), the implication being that the problem is much larger.
Figures consistently show low rate of illicit trade in cultural property
However, the miniscule share of illicit trade represented in its reports over the years by cultural property has been consistent, only now augmented by media reports not sourced via the CEN.
It further boosts this chapter of the report with a summary of Pandora VI, the latest in a seven-year campaign of international operations involving mass seizures and arrests. What the WCO, Europol or Interpol have never done, however, is to provide data on how many of their seizures and arrests later prove to be justified and how many were shown to be related to terrorism financing. It is not just the trade asking for these figures, academic investigators want them too to see how effective these operations are.
Previously the WCO has attempted to rebut the ADA and IADAA’s analysis of its reports, stating that the figures cannot be relied on. As our analysis always provides transparent sources for the data emanating from the reports, however, the WCO’s case against our analysis simply does not stand up.
Ultimately, its figures must be indicative of the global state of affairs; if they are misleading, why publish them?
2018 Illicit Trade Report lists Cultural Property as just 0.08% of global illicit trade compared to other risk sectors
The World Customs Organisation’s latest Illicit Trade Report covers 2018, shows a decline in Cultural Property crime, while also demonstrating how it is dwarfed by other sectors of trafficking, such as drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods, accounting for just 0.08% of all reported cases and seizures.
Cultural Property crime includes at least 12 categories of Cultural Property, ranging from household goods to jewellery, books and manuscripts and even flora and fauna. Antiquities form a small part of this category and the WCO does not even record separate figures for them, but does do so for archaeological items.
In summary, the number of reported cases globally in 2018 was 98, down from 155 in 2017. Reported seizures globally fell from 193 to 123, while items seized fell from 15,865 to 15,689. Although currency items seized rose from 9,431 to 13,391, archaeological items seized fell by more than half from 703 to 314.
Spread of cases and seizures
In all, Cultural Property accounted for 0.08% of all cases and seizures across all categories of trafficking. By contrast, Drugs accounted for 39% of case and 32% of seizures, with other categories accounting for shares as follows: Counterfeit Goods (29%/39%); Alcohol & Tobacco (22.5%/20%); Medical Products (4.3%/3.7%); Weapons and Ammunition (2.4%/3.6%) and Environmental Products (2.1%/1.8%).
Published in December 2019, the report records cases and seizures reported through the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) in in its statistical analysis, although it also includes case studies of other crimes. However, some of these are years old – one dates to 2002, for example.
Analysis of the report by the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) includes graphics to show the vast difference in sector risks.
With detailed WCO figures for several years running now available, it is clear just how inaccurate claims are of a multi-billion dollar international trafficking network in antiquities, despite such claims driving forward policy and restrictive new laws such as the new EU import licensing regulations.
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.
You can read it here. see pages 4-6.
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.
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.
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
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%.
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)
- 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.