More than 19,000 archaeological artefacts and other artworks have been recovered as part of a global operation spanning 103 countries and focusing on the dismantlement of international networks of art and antiquities traffickers.
During the operation, which involved teams from Afghanistan, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Italy, Latvia, Romania and Spain, 101 suspects were arrested, while 300 investigations were opened as part of the global coordinated crackdown.
The criminal networks targeted in the crackdown handled archaeological goods and artwork looted from war-stricken countries, as well as works stolen from museums and archaeological sites.
(TOP: A Menaion from 1760 was among the items intercepted in Romania, as well as coins, during the operation. Below are other recovered artifacts).
The results were achieved during the global code-named Operation Athena II, led by the World Customs Organization (WCO) and INTERPOL, which was carried out in synchronization with the Europe-focused Operation Pandora IV coordinated by the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) and Europol in the framework of EMPACT.
Both Operations ran in the autumn of 2019.
Law enforcement officers paid particular attention to the monitoring of online market places and sales sites, as the Internet is an important part of the illicit trade of cultural goods.
During what was called a ‘cyber patrol week’ and under the leadership of the Italian Carabinieri (Arma dei Carabinieri), police and customs experts along with Europol, INTERPOL and the WCO mapped active targets and developed intelligence packages. As a result, 8,670 cultural objects for online sale were seized, representing 28% of the total number of artefacts recovered during the international crackdown.
- Afghan Customs seized 971 cultural objects at Kabul airport just as the objects were about to depart for Istanbul, Turkey.
- The Spanish National Police (Policia Nacional), working together with the Colombian Police (Policia Nacional de Colombia), recovered at Barajas airport in Madrid some very rare pre-Columbian objects illegally acquired through looting in Colombia, including a unique Tumaco gold mask and several gold figurines and items of ancient jewellery. Three traffickers were arrested in Spain, and the Colombian authorities carried out house searches in Bogota, resulting in the seizure of a further 242 pre-Columbian objects, the largest ever seizure in the country’s history.
- The investigation of a single case of online sale led to the seizure of 2,500 ancient coins by the Argentinian Federal Police Force (Policia Federal Argentina), the largest seizure for this category of items, while the second largest seizure was made by Latvian State Police (Latvijas Valsts Policija) for a total of 1,375 coins.
- Six European Police forces reported the seizure of a hundred and eight metal detectors, demonstrating that looting in Europe is still an ongoing business.
“Organized crime has many faces. The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them: it is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks. You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons: we know that the same groups are engaged, because it generate big money. Given that this is a global phenomenon affecting every country on the planet – either as a source, transit or destination, it is crucial that Law Enforcement all work together to combat it. Europol, in its role as the European Law Enforcement Agency, supported the EU countries involved in this global crackdown by using its intelligence capabilities to identify the pan-European networks behind these thefts,” said Catherine de Bolle, Europol’s Executive Director.
“The operational success of Customs and its law enforcement partners offers tangible proof that international trafficking of cultural objects is thriving and touches upon all continents. In particular, we keep receiving evidence that online illicit markets are one of the major vehicles for this crime. However, online transactions always leave a trace and Customs, Police and other partners have established effective mechanisms to work together to prevent cross border illicit trade”, said Dr Kunio Mikuriya, WCO Secretary General.
Many activities carried out during the Operation were decided on and conducted jointly between customs and police at national level, with the support and participation of experts from the Ministries of Culture as well as from other relevant institutions and law enforcement agencies.
Illicit trade in artefacts and other cultural objects is a billion dollar industry, netting those involved huge sums in profits. According to a 2011 study by RAND Corporation, an NGO, “the illicit trade in cultural property, including theft, fraud, looting and trafficking, is one of the largest and most challenging criminal activities we face today.”
“Carried out on an international scale, and involving links with the drugs and arms trades as well as terrorist
organisations, the illegal trade in stolen art and antiquities is worth up to an estimated $6 billion annually… Although general art crime is often estimated to be the third highest grossing crime after money laundering and terrorist activities, it is tackled with only a fraction of the resources that these and other crimes are,” noted the RAND report.