The complex fight against the illegal trafficking of cultural property

The illegal trafficking of cultural property is a transnational crime that affects the countries of origin, transit countries and the final destination. Illegal commerce involving works of art remains active thanks to demand within the art market, the opening of borders, improvements in transport systems and political instability in certain countries.

For example, over the last decade there has been a growing trend in the illegal trafficking of cultural objects to the Middle East affected by armed conflict. And the fact is that the black market involving works of art is becoming as lucrative as drug, arms and counterfeit goods trafficking may be.

In 2015, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2199, which asks countries to adopt the necessary measures to avoid commerce involving Iraqi and Syrian stolen cultural goods. It also recognised Interpol’s global role in addressing such illegal commerce, particularly by raising awareness of the problem among member organisations. It regards the exchange of information between the police, art and antique dealers and the owners of works of art as vital.

Interpol’s stolen works of art database is a key tool in this field and is available to police forces and other authorised users all over the world. The public can openly access certain types of data: the latest works of art to be stolen (Interpol posters), retrieved works, retrieved works that that have not been claimed by their owners and stolen works from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

To fight against the theft and trafficking of works of art, Interpol works with other worldwide organisations: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and The World Customs Organization (WCO).

Interpol also stresses the role of certain police organisations in the fight against the trafficking of works of art, such as the Rumanian Police, which boasts the widest operational database. Latvia has an electronic service aimed at owners and managers of cultural objects to describe such objects. Finally, it is important to highlight the joint Norwegian Polish project on illegal commerce involving cultural heritage.

All sectors involved in the fight against crime use the so-called object ID, conceived by the Getty Information Institute, which is the International standard for describing cultural objects with the aim of facilitating identification in cases of theft.

The ID Standard was created with the following objectives:

  • Provide a list to check the necessary information to identify stolen objects
  • Regulate documentation to establish the minimum amount of information necessary to describe an object in order to identify it
  • Develop information networks that allow different organisations to exchange descriptions of objects quickly
  • Provide a solid base for training programmes to teach how to document objects


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