After drugs and weapons, trafficking in art is the most lucrative source of funding for illegal activities

“Illegal trafficking has been closely linked with terrorism and organised crime. After drugs and weapons, cultural property is the third most lucrative source of funding for illegal activities and in South-East Europe recent cases have demonstrated an interaction between stolen cultural property and those involved in drug or weapon trafficking,” John Bold, UK heritage expert, said today in a statement to the PACE Culture Committee.

At a hearing on the deliberate destruction and illegal trafficking in cultural heritage, held in connection with the preparation of a report by Stefan Schennach (Austria, SOC), Mr Bold said this was an international trade which transcended borders, generated huge profits and carried few risks. “It is a trade which is very difficult to monitor or control since places of origin may not be clear and imports and exports thereafter may go through several countries and jurisdictions.”

Mr Bold called for greater international co-operation, “beyond the signing of conventions” in order to incorporate their recommendations into national law and then to enforce them, with international co-operation and agreements on procedures for extradition. There was also, he said, a need for greater clarity at all levels – clarity about the objects of concern and clarity about what constituted criminal activity “so that offences may be properly defined and understood in a manner which the general public will understand and support”.

When it came to combating this trafficking effectively, Corrado Catesi, Coordinator of INTERPOL’s Works of Art Unit, underlined the merits of having specialised units within national police forces. Such units could advise other law enforcement agencies (such as the customs authorities) or specialists in art, such as auction houses, galleries and museums. “Countries need a robust legal framework to protect cultural heritage,” he said. Dedicated teams could help countries to fulfil their international treaty obligations regarding cultural property and assist the legislature in making laws.

Similarly, awareness raising was essential in combating this type of crime, and should extend to everyone from museums and auction houses to judicial authorities and members of the public, as potential owners. Countries were also encouraged to create national databases of stolen works of art and to link them up to the INTERPOL’s database of stolen arts of work in order to improve its effectiveness.

Mr Schennach, meanwhile, welcomed the new Council of Europe Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property and invited all states to sign and ratify it as quickly as possible. Describing the convention as “relevant” and “timely”, he said it should strengthen the global system for combatting trafficking in cultural property and provide a robust legal framework for enforcement.