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Frequently asked questions

Is it true that trafficking in cultural property is the third most common form of trafficking, after drug trafficking and arms trafficking?

We do not possess any figures which would enable us to claim that trafficking in cultural property is the third or fourth most common form of trafficking, although this is frequently mentioned at international conferences and in the media.

In fact, it is very difficult to gain an exact idea of how many items of cultural property are stolen throughout the world and it is unlikely that there will ever be any accurate statistics. National statistics are often based on the circumstances of the theft (petty theft, theft by breaking and entering or armed robbery), rather than the type of object stolen.

An enhanced information exchange could assist INTERPOL in determining the importance as well as the trends and patterns of this type of crime. 

What is the cost of trafficking in cultural property?

It is not possible to put a figure on this type of crime, partly for the reasons mentioned above and partly because the value of an item of cultural property is not always the same in the country in which it was stolen and the destination country. Also, thefts of such property are sometimes not reported to the police because the money used to purchase them had not been declared for tax reasons or because it was the proceeds of criminal activity.

It is also impossible to assess the financial extent of the losses caused by clandestine archaeological excavations. Such excavations often only come to light when looted items appear on the international market. Illegal excavations destroy the scientific context of the single finds and seriously jeopardize future archeological research of the sites.

Even without considering the economic impact behind the illicit traffic of cultural goods, it is important to consider the damage caused by this type of crime to civilizations and their history. The cultural heritage of a country constitutes its identity. A country that is deprived of its cultural heritage because it is being looted or stolen is a country that is losing its identity and every component that is linked to it: national belonging, patriotism or national pride. 

Which countries are most affected by this type of crime and which objects are most frequently stolen?

Due to the lack of reliable and internationally harmonized statistics on cultural property thefts, it is impossible to identify one country being more affected than the others.

However, it is obvious that the following regions are particularly affected  by this type of crime:

  • Europe,
  • Latin America,
  • Middle East,
  • North and Sub-Saharan Africa,
  • South East Asia.

The majority of thefts are carried out from private homes. Museums and places of worship are also among the common targets.

The type of objects stolen varies from country to country. Generally speaking, paintings, sculptures and statues, and religious items are very sought after by thieves.

However, no category is spared, including such diverse items as archaeological pieces, antiquarian books, antique furniture, coins, weapons and firearms or ancient gold and silverware.

What is INTERPOL's role in countering the traffic in cultural property?

Since 1947, INTERPOL has put considerable effort into countering the traffic in cultural property.

The role of the General Secretariat is to:

  • Centralize information. Data sent to the General Secretariat is analysed and entered in the Works of Art database. Our role is to give added value to information received.
  • Transmit information received to member countries and official partners as rapidly as possible.
  • Develop the tools to enable member countries to counter the traffic in cultural property effectively.
  • Organize international conferences, either at the General Secretariat in Lyon, France, or in member countries, and participate in other international conferences and workshops across the world.
  • Organize training courses on countering the traffic in cultural property.
  • Maintain a close working relationship with the international organizations involved in countering the traffic in cultural property. INTERPOL has signed memoranda of understanding with UNESCO, the World Customs Organization (WCO), and the International Council of Museums (ICOM).

What tools has INTERPOL devised to tackle the traffic in cultural property?

Stolen Works of Art database

Our database of stolen works of art combines descriptions and pictures of around 45,000 items. Direct access to the database was made available in 2009, enabling authorized users to check in real-time if an item is among the registered objects.

In accordance with strict data processing rules, only information provided by authorized entities (INTERPOL National Central Bureaus and specific international partner organizations) can be inserted into the database.  Only fully identifiable objects are entered in the database.

'Most wanted works of art' posters

We publish a poster every June and December to publicize the Most Wanted Works of Art.

What is the modus operandi most frequently used by thieves?

Breaking and entering is the method most commonly employed by thieves.

What can be done to tackle this type of crime?

At national level:

  • Develop and enhance national legislation to protect cultural heritage and regulate the art market (UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws);
  • Become party to international conventions (position of the General Secretariat vis-à-vis the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention);
  • Assess the potential use of the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) to fight illicit trafficking of cultural property;
  • Prepare inventories of public collections using standards which will make it possible to circulate information in the event of theft;
  • Develop a computerized database along the lines of those currently in use, to avoid duplication of effort;
  • Circulate information on thefts as rapidly as possible;
  • Raise public awareness with regard to the cultural heritage both in the country and abroad;
  • Set up specialized police units to tackle this type of crime;
  • Develop training courses for the police, other law-enforcement services and customs, with the support of cultural institutions.

By owners:

  • Compile inventories of collections, with photographs and exact descriptions of each object (refer to Object ID);
  • Make objects easily identifiable (i.e. marking by the owner or by specialist private companies);
  • Protect the premises where the collections are held;
  • Report thefts immediately to the police or other law-enforcement authorities and provide them with a full list of stolen items together with photographs.

By art/antique dealers:

  • Take extreme care when purchasing items and use all available means to determine their origin and provenance;
  • Before purchasing objects, check against relevant stolen art databases (INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art Database - authoized users only; apply for access);
  • Refuse to buy objects without adequate documentation about their origin.