Recent report on the illicit antiquities trade receives mixed response

Posted on: June 10, 2020 by

A UNESCO-backed research project into the illicit trade in cultural property in Germany has recently released its final report. The ‘ILLICID Project’, launched by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, aimed to increase understanding of illicit trafficking networks and financial flows linked to organised crime and terrorism. However, the findings of the final report have attracted critical comments from members of both the museum and trade community. When it comes to the murky world of heritage crime, it appears that drawing definite conclusions is not easy.

Before examining the findings of the ILLICID Report, it will be helpful to set out the complex web of international and national law operating in this area. Targeted measures address the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property, under UN Security Council Resolution 1483 (2003) and EU Regulations, respectively (implemented into UK law through Orders in Council – see here and here). Recently, the EU has adopted the 2019 Regulation on the introduction and the import of cultural goods, which forbids the introduction into EU territory of cultural goods that were unlawfully exported from their country of origin as well as placing licensing and documentation requirements on importers of cultural goods (see our previous blogs on this topic here and here). In Germany specifically, detailed rules governing the trade in cultural property were implemented in the 2016 Act on the Protection of Cultural Property. Internationally, the 2017 Nicosia Convention of the Council of Europe seeks to establish criminal offences applicable to this context, such as unlawful exportation, importation and excavation. However, this Convention is not yet in force as it lacks sufficient ratifications.

The Iraq Museum in Baghdad was looted in 2003 (Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The majority of these legal instruments are aimed at curbing the risks of illicit trafficking, and refer to the links between the illicit cultural goods trade and terrorist financing. For example, the preamble to the Nicosia Convention voices a concern “that terrorist groups…use the illicit trade of cultural property as a source of financing”. Similarly, the preamble to the 2019 EU Regulation sets out its main justification as “the prevention of terrorist financing and money laundering through the sale of pillaged cultural goods to buyers in the Union”. The ILLICID Report sought to increase our understanding of these risks.

Although the report was published only in German, so far as we are aware, the key statistics were rehearsed in press coverage. The project examined artefacts offered for sale online, in auction catalogues and at trade fairs between 2015 and 2018 in Germany. Perhaps the most shocking statistic reported was that 98% of more than 6,000 antiquities from the Eastern Mediterranean offered for sale did not have a proven legal provenance. Additionally, of the 2,387 artefacts judged to be from Iraq and Syria, only 0.4% of Iraqi and 9.6% of Syrian objects met the standards required to be traded legally on the German market.

Some commentators have raised questions about the report’s findings and how these have been presented. According to one article, the view of St John Simpson, senior curator and archaeologist in the Middle East department of the British Museum, was that the results of the report are ‘misleading’. Lack of provenance information is not necessarily evidence of recent looting. Similarly, according to Erika Bochereau, the Secretary General of CINOA, a trade organisation for art and antiques dealers, the ILLICID Report did not produce any concrete evidence for trafficking or terrorist financing. Bochereau also argues that the findings of the report highlight a mismatch between legal requirements and the norms of the trade. What is deemed to be satisfactory provenance information at law, is claimed to be at odds with what is possible in reality. If such a mismatch exists, it needs to be addressed to ensure an effective and workable response to the problem of the illicit trade in cultural property.

The apparent difficulties with the report are unfortunate but should not deflect attention from the continuing problems associated with the illicit trade in cultural property. Earlier this month, INTERPOL, Europol and the World Customs Organization announced the success of two major international operations targeting art and antiquities traffickers. A staggering 19,000 artefacts were recovered and the criminal networks involved are said to handle loot from areas of conflict, archaeological sites and museums. The operations focussed in part on online market places and included a ‘cyber patrol week’ as the Internet is considered to be a central aspect of the illicit trade in cultural goods. In total, 101 individuals have been arrested as suspects. Additionally, a recent study by the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project, examined the use of Facebook groups as a network for trafficking antiquities and found evidence to link extremist individuals to this activity. According to the Art Newspaper, these Facebook groups have increased their activities in response to the current coronavirus crisis. On a smaller scale, an archaeologist, working on a site in Mosul previously held by Islamic State fighters, spoke of his presumption that “very valuable objects” from the site “must now be on the black market”.

Ultimately, this is a highly complicated area which is unlikely to have a straightforward solution. Whilst the ILLICID Report’s findings might not have been universally well-received, this does not mean that there is no beneficial information to be gained from its analysis.

The report recommended a series of measures aimed at tackling the trade in goods without sufficient provenance information. These include digitising all post-1945 trade publications and creating a ‘transparency register’ containing information on all artefacts which can be legally traded. An initiative with similar goals was launched by the British Museum in 2018. Circulating Artefacts (CircArt) is a project based around a digital platform which allows for the sharing of information related to objects with potentially problematic provenance from Egypt and Sudan. There have been some reservations from the trade relating to the transparency of the platform and the possible impact on good-faith purchasers. However, there seems to be much to be gained from information-sharing systems which aid understanding of the nature and scale of the illicit trade in cultural goods.