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
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.
EU legislative framework
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.
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.
The EU works with other international bodies involved in the protection of cultural heritage:
- Council of Europe
- World Customs Organization
Consolidating a solid base of evidence and information network
A 2019 study on illicit trade in cultural goods contributes to a better understanding of the illicit trade in cultural goods in Europe.
The study provides insights into the various aspects of this issue, such as the sources, transit and destinations of illicitly traded goods. It sheds light on trafficking routes, trends and patterns of trafficking and illicit trade operations, as well as the actors involved.
The authors of the study discuss approaches to measuring the volume of this illicit trade. They explore national and international criminal justice responses to trafficking in cultural goods. At the same time, they also identify the challenges that relevant law enforcement authorities face when implementing effective responses.
The idea of the project "NETCHER – NETwork and digital platform for Cultural Heritage Enhancing and Rebuilding" started to take shape after the terrorist attacks in Paris at the end of 2015. Criminal investigations proved that the trafficking of antiquities is a major source of funding for international terrorism.
The participants of this project set up a European network of relevant operators and a Europe-wide charter of good practices to efficiently fight the illicit trafficking of antiquities. The EU finances this project through the Horizon 2020 Programme.
Find out more about the NETCHER project.
Other useful resources on illicit trafficking
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and cultural Organization (UNESCO)
- Council of Europe Convention on Offences relating to cultural property
- International Council of Museums: Fighting Illicit Traffic
- International Council on Monuments and Sites
- INTERPOL: trafficking in illicit goods and counterfeiting
- World Customs Organization