In the latest of a string of baseless claims, UNESCO reports that the illicit trade in cultural property is estimated to be worth nearly $10 billion a year. It’s a handy figure to use as a headline to launch its 1970 Convention’s 50th anniversary conference and accompanying campaign. However, it gives no source for this claim. “As shown by The Real Price of Art campaign, in some cases, the looting of archaeological sites, which fuels this traffic, is highly organized and constitutes a major source of financing for criminal and terrorist organizations,” the article on its website continues.
Launched on October 20, the campaign has included the first International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property on November 14 and an international conference (November 16-18) organised in partnership with the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, the European Commission and the Council of Europe.
Having asked the UNESCO author for the source of the $10 billion claim, our fellow trade association, IADAA, was sent a copy of the French version of the 2018 Joint European Commission-UNESCO Project report, Engaging the European Art Market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property, by Professor Marc-Andre Renold with the message that the evidence was in section C.
It isn’t.
As we pointed out to the author, the Renold study doesn’t mention a $10 billion figure anywhere. The closest it comes is in quoting an estimated figure of $6 billion to $8 billion from page 50 of the 2011 study by Frank Wehringer listed in the footnotes. However, Wehringer did not give it as his estimate but as a figure “regularly given” without providing any real source for it. He also said that “according to widespread statements, [this] makes it the third largest illegal market after drugs and weapons (according to estimates by UNESCO and FBI according to Anton 2010a: 2)”. In fact, this supposition is not true, as confirmed by Interpol and the WCO Illicit Trade Reports (the latest published in June), which yet again put the number of cases being investigated and seizures made in cultural property at 0.2% of the global total reported through the Customs Enforcement Network, whereas for drugs it was 35%/30% and for weapons 8%/8% – other risk categories were much higher than for cultural property, which was by far the smallest category).
In addition, the Renold study itself states: “There are no comprehensive and reliable statistics that would allow us to capture the true scale of illicit trafficking or monetary value of the black market in cultural goods.” This is a view adopted by Interpol, which has also stated that it never expects to have any reliable figures, as well as by the RAND Corporation report, studying open source data, published in May 2020.
As the ADA and IADAA pointed out to UNESCO, this is important because in recent years so many misguided policy decisions have been made on the back of false information, with the result that funding and other resources have been diverted away from where they are really needed in the fight against crime, including trafficking.
We then pointed out that in the absence of a reliable source for the $10 billion claim, UNESCO is currently promoting inaccurate information in what is a highly sensitive area. This being the case, we asked the author to correct the error before it was disseminated any further in the wider media than it already had been. As yet, we have received no further reply and the article remains unchanged on UNESCO’s website.

UNESCO risks misleading the very public it wishes to educate

Bearing in mind that the express aim of the international communication campaign to which this article is linked is to “make the general public and art lovers aware of the devastation of the history and identity of peoples wreaked by the illicit trade in cultural goods”, it seems reasonable to expect UNESCO to get its facts right and to correct mistakes when they are brought to its attention. Otherwise it risks misleading the very public it wishes to educate.
However, as was later reported, almost the entire advertising campaign devised by UNESCO surrounding this has been exposed as fraudulent.
If only this were an isolated incident, but unfortunately it’s all too commonplace within UNESCO itself, as the autumn 2020 editorial in The UNESCO Courier demonstrates.
Written by Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, Assistant Director-General for Culture, UNESCO, it states as fact (“The figures prove it”) that the attraction of illicit antiquities has never been greater, and attempts to justify this using the bogus claim that “The illicit flow of cultural goods is now believed to be the third-largest in terms of volume, after drugs and arms”.
As shown above, this is not true. (See the WCO Illicit Trade Reports 2017-2019), plus all the evidence on the IADAA website, all of which is independently verifiable through the links and references supplied.
Meanwhile Lazare Eloundou Assomo, Director of Culture and Emergencies for UNESCO’s Culture Sector, was interviewed on “Antiquités du sang”, quand pillage et pandémie font bon ménage! on Radio France Culture on October 24, during which (7 mins in) he claimed that estimates put the value of the global trade in illicit antiquities at around $64 billion. Bearing in mind that the world’s leading art market report, the Art Basel Report, estimated in 2019 that the value of the entire global art market was $67.4 billion, and the legitimate market in MENA antiquities is around 0.5% of this, it would be interesting to learn his source for the claim. During another radio interview, broadcast as part of the BBC World Services’ Business Daily special Zombie Statistics on February 20, 2019 (5 mins 20 secs in), Assomo was challenged over the inaccuracy of the figures UNESCO had been promoting since 2011. His response: “I don’t think we should enter into a debate about whether these figures are right or not right.” Whilst stating that “today we do not consider it any more important to concentrate on figures”, he claims that looting has increased, a claim immediately challenged by the interviewer, who says: “How do you know… you don’t have a global figure and you don’t support the 2011 [UNESCO report] figure?”
Dismissing the importance of figures is an odd position to take when you headline your campaign with an inaccurate but persuasive $10 billion figure.
Statistics guru Dr Tim Harford’s response to this on the same radio programme was that it is important to take statistics seriously because they are essential for understanding the world. “If people start treating them in a very cavalier way, that spoils it for everybody, because then people start not trusting statistics… Listing where a claim came from and how it was arrived at is a very important starting point.” It’s time UNESCO followed this advice.
If, as both Ramírez and Assomo keep claiming, the evidence is there and clear, why don’t they produce it, especially when directly challenged to do so by organisations like the BBC? The Ramírez article mentioned above was an ideal opportunity to set the record straight on this front, yet it did not do so. If the evidence is so clear, why the need to rely on bogus figures instead?
For an organisation like UNESCO, with its reputation and influence, to behave in the sort of cavalier way Dr Harford describes over such a sensitive subject is not only highly irresponsible and damaging, but also contemptuous of the public interest it pledges to serve.