What is it about?

Trafficking of cultural goods is illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property, i.e. items being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.

Trafficking in cultural goods can take different forms, ranging from theft from cultural heritage institutions or private collections, through looting of archaeological sites to the displacement of artefacts due to war.

Why is it needed?

Illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property are causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property. It is sometimes linked to organised crime, money laundering or even terrorism. International co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country's cultural property against all the dangers resulting there from.

What is the Commission's role?

The Commission is responsible for taking measures to ensure both that the evidence-base for its policymaking is sound, and that it can, in concert with other international organisations, develop effective measures to tackle the issue.

The Commission has identified several pressing issues in the field, such as:

  • a lack of consistent terminology and legal definitions
  • a lack of consistent legislation between Member States, in particular concerning control of importations of cultural goods into the EU
  • a lack of information and data on trafficking in cultural goods
  • difficulties in sharing information between relevant authorities

Most recently, the Communication on an Action Plan for strengthening the fight against terrorist financing recognised that terrorist groups use illicit excavations of archaeological sites to obtain cultural goods as a source of income.

What has been done so far?

The Commission works internally to strengthen the evidence-base and policy framework, requiring cooperation between the departments for:

Eurojust (Judicial Cooperation Unit of the European Union), Europol (European Police Office) and CEPOL (European Police College) may contribute to the coordination of investigations, criminal prosecutions and the exchange of information between Member States.

EU- CULTNET is an informal network of law enforcement authorities and expertise competent in the field of cultural goods, set up by the Council in October 2012 for the purpose of preventing and combating crime against cultural goods.

International cooperation

The European Commission cooperates closely with a number of organisations to strengthen the regulatory environment. These include:

The European Commission provided support for ICOM International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods and for COLOSSEUM - a joint customs operation aimed at combating illegal trafficking of cultural goods both within the EU and exported to or imported from non-EU countries.  Also participating were the WCO Regional Intelligence Liaison Office for Western Europe, Interpol, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the European Commission’s Taxation and Customs Union Directorate-General (TAXUD), the International Council of Museums, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the Italian ‘Guardia di Finanza’.

Moreover, the fight against illicit trafficking is also considered by the EU in its relations with third countries.

For example, the Euromed Heritage programme, funded by the EU, has worked closely with UNESCO to build the capacity of national authorities and cultural heritage professionals in the Mediterranean Partner Countries. In January 2014, In the framework of Joint Africa-EU strategic partnership (JAES), the European Commission organized a pan-African Workshop on the protection of cultural goods against plunder, theft and illicit trafficking in Morocco.

Most recently, the EU has supported UNESCO's Action plan for Syria, specifically in tackling the illicit trafficking of cultural goods.

The EU also supported UNESCO's action plan for Mali, in coordination with other international partners. The project included the inventory, digitisation and protection of Timbuktu manuscripts to limit illicit trafficking in the region.

What are the next steps?

The Commission's work in the sector will continue, primarily through cooperation between international organisations in the field, and information gathering operations.

As required by the Council conclusions on the fight against the financing of terrorism and foreseen in the Communication on an Action Plan for strengthening the fight against terrorist financing, the Commission should propose a legislative proposal against illicit trade in cultural goods in the second quarter of 2017. Public consultation on rules on the import of cultural goods is open until 23 January 2017.