Trafficking of cultural goods is the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property (items of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science). This can take different forms:
- theft from cultural heritage institutions or private collections
- looting of archaeological sites
- displacement of artefacts due to war
Illicit trafficking of cultural property has many causes, and ignorance and poor ethics are at its very root. Illicitly traded cultural property is often transferred either through illicit markets worldwide or through licit markets such as auctions, including through the Internet. People, governments, the art-market and institutions can do their part to fight this by raising awareness, being informed and ethical when buying and selling art and cultural objects, enacting and respecting laws, and protecting cultural heritage and property.
On 1 February, professionals from the sector and from national and European administrations responsible for the fight against trafficking in cultural property met to discuss innovative initiatives and propose a dialogue with the art market. This conference brought together the main European actors involved in the fight against trafficking in cultural property, an issue of great diplomatic importance for many so-called “source countries” in the Middle East and Latin America.
Trafficking in cultural property, a global organised crime phenomenon, provides resources to criminal networks and, in some cases, contributes to the financing of terrorist activities. Ultimately, this trafficking robs a people of its history and culture. The countries of the European Union are victims of the plundering of their sites and collections, but they are also home to popular markets and it is their duty to fight this scourge. The fight against this type of trafficking has seen the emergence of innovative initiatives in several EU Member States, which could offer opportunities for synergies. In addition, art market professionals also have a role to play in this fight and actions taken to stem the flow should be given greater visibility. The forthcoming publication by the European Commission of an action plan against trafficking in cultural goods is a timely opportunity to organise a conference to strengthen European cooperation.
Co-organised by the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture, and opened by the Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, and the Vice-President of the European Commission and Assistant Director-General for Culture at UNESCO, the conference aimed to organise the networking of European stakeholders in this field and the exchange of good practices, in order to fight trafficking in cultural goods. Discussions identified synergies between existing initiatives in Europe, for example to share data on trafficked goods or to mobilise all stakeholders, and to define tangible ways to improve European cooperation.
The conference consisted of three round tables:
- The first dedicated to new technologies and innovative systems used in the fight against trafficking.
- The second focused on the role of the art market and its regulation in the European Union.
- The third round table will address ways and means of promoting the actions undertaken to combat trafficking among all stakeholders (the general public, professionals, students, researchers, etc.).
The aim of these three sessions was to present existing systems, actions undertaken and technological innovations to fight trafficking, especially new digital tools and information exchange systems, in order to produce operational solutions.
On the eve of the informal meeting of culture ministers to be held in Angers on 7 and 8 March, and with a view to the forthcoming publication by the European Commission of an action plan to combat trafficking in cultural goods, this conference should encourage the possible creation of a European network of experts. Its aim is to put project leaders in contact with national, European and international administrations and to broaden and strengthen the European Union’s action to protect its heritage, regulate the internal market and continue to mobilise stakeholders at the international level.
Various instruments regulate the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural goods internationally. The most important of these instruments is the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a reliable and experienced partner of the EU in combatting the illicit trade of cultural goods, which implements several EU-funded projects:
A toolkit for European Judiciary and law enforcement
The European Union cooperated with UNESCO in 2018 on training judicial and enforcement authorities in the Member States for identification, investigation and cooperation on illicit trafficking. The project organised training modules on prevention and investigation of cultural property-related crime for the relevant professional groups (including police and custom officers).
As part of the project the co-organisers published a toolkit for European Judiciary and law enforcement.
Protecting Cultural Heritage and Diversity in Complex Emergencies for Stability and Peace
The project aimed to allow for the stabilization and urgent safeguarding of the cultural heritage of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen as well as their population.
Find out more about the project.
Inter-regional and cross-cutting action to strengthen the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property
The overall objective of the initiative is to reduce the illicit trafficking of cultural property in the EU and beyond. This project, implemented by UNESCO, addresses beneficiaries in
- EU Member States
- pre-accession countries of the Western Balkans
- partner countries of the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) South.
The project reinforces the skills of key professionals and stimulates new synergies among a wide range of professionals:
- representatives from cultural heritage authorities and museums
- professionals from the banking sector
- the media
- judiciary and law enforcement officials
- civil servants for relevant ministries.
Cooperation with other international bodies
The EU works with other international bodies involved in the protection of cultural heritage:
- Council of Europe
- World Customs Organization
EU legislative framework
To efficiently protect cultural heritage against illicit trafficking, a sound legislative framework, international cooperation and a solid base of evidence and well-targeted projects are needed.
- The European Parliament and Council Directive 2014/60/EU on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State introduced arrangements enabling EU Member States to secure the return of cultural objects to their territory that were removed in breach of national measures.
- Council Regulation (EC) No 116/2009 on the export of cultural goods ensures uniform controls at the EU’s external borders. It does so by subjecting exports to the presentation of an export licence. Individuals can obtain this document through the competent Member State authorities. This document is valid throughout the EU.
- Regulation (EU) 2019/880 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 April 2019 on the introduction and the import of cultural goods provides rules on imports into the EU of cultural goods exported from their country of origin.
Source: European Council