New “Intelligence” Body Will Monitor Illegal Traffic in Cultural Property

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has announced the foundation of a new “Intelligence” body to monitor illegal traffic in cultural property.

This new group will be called the International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods.  It will work as a bridge between UNESCO, Interpol, and its constituent policing agencies, as well as other research institutions in the field.  The “Observatory” is now awaiting formal funding approval from the European Commission.

The story of this group was first broken by Ian Johnston of NBC News.  An ICOM official who spoke to Mr. Johnston, but asked not to be named, discussed how traffic in cultural property is “much worse” than other types of theft.  The contact went on:  “ICOM felt it needed a lot more reliable information and recent analyses of trends, what one would call the need for ‘intelligence’ when fighting organized criminal activity.”

It has long been known that art crime is a funding source for organized crime, from small local gangs to large international syndicates, but the true extent remains uncertain.  Until the US Department of Justice recently remade their website, they stated clearly that art crime is the third-highest-grossing criminal trade worldwide, behind only the drug and arms trades, and that it is a major funding source for organized crime and even terrorism (the new website design no longer has a page dedicated to cultural property crimes).  Interpol has, in the past, reiterated this information, but currently states that while experts have made such claims, it simply does not have enough information to confirm or deny them.

This brings up an oft-asked question: where do these statistics come from?

An official who prefers not to be named, but has strong connections to the relevant agencies, explained: “This information comes from the UK National Threat Assessment, conducted by SOCA (the UK’s Serious Organized Crime Agency).  The statistics were provided by Scotland Yard, but are classified.  The report containing this information was submitted in 2006-2007 and it remained in the Threat Assessment for several years.  The terrorist links to the Middle East come from the Interpol Tracking Task Force in Iraq and were reported at the annual Interpol Stolen Works of Art meeting in Lyon in 2008 and 2009, after prior meetings were held in Lyon, Amman, and Washington.  The Head of Interpol Baghdad claimed to have proof of the link between Islamic Fundamentalist terrorist groups and art crime (primarily antiquities looting).  All of the major players, from Interpol to the US Dept of Justice, believed the reports and still broadcast the claims of it, so there is no reason to doubt it—but the details are likely still classified.”

This sort of response may be frustrating to those who want specifics, but it does explain both where the oft-quoted data comes from, and why we don’t know much beyond the broad-stroke headlines.  The aforementioned investigation followed a 2004 article in the German magazine Der Spiegel that broke an unknown element to the story of Mohammed Atta, one of the organizers of the September 11 attack.  Atta had flown to Germany in 1999 to try to sell looted Afghani antiquities.  When asked why he wanted to sell them, he said that he wanted to buy a plane.  It seems that an early iteration of the September 11 attack would have used funds generated from selling looted antiquities to buy planes to crash into buildings.  Because investigations of terrorist activity often remain classified, it is understandable that investigations of terrorist-related funding sources, including looted antiquities, would remain likewise.  One thing is clear, however: it is not just the art that is at stake.

We know distressingly little about art crime, because it has largely been sidelined as a field of study, due to the mistaken impression that it consists merely of a handful of cinematic museum heists each year, like the recent Rotterdam heist.  In actuality, there are tens of thousands of artworks reported stolen each year (20,000-30,000 in Italy alone) and far more go unreported.  Police recovery rates for stolen art are not encouraging—some studies have suggested that they are as low as 1.5%, and at best around 10% of what is reported stolen is recovered.  Few countries have any dedicated art police, because the general public and authorities alike seem unaware of the severity of art crime, its connections to the drug and arms trades, or have not been given access to enough of the data to determine for themselves if funds should really be dedicated to policing stolen art.

How do criminals profit from stolen art?  Some art is stolen for ransom, and some works are sold, although there is no known market for recognizable stolen art.   Looted antiquities, on the other hand, of the sort on which ICOM’s new International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods will focus, are taken directly from the earth (or the sea) and therefore have never existed before to modern humans.  They will never appear on a stolen art registry, and can be sold openly, often for full value, accompanied only by forged provenance that suggests the objects were legally excavated and exported.  Because of the interplay between drugs, arms, and art among organized crime groups of varying sizes, there are other ways to benefit from stolen art, beyond selling it.

When I taught a seminar in art crime at Yale in 2009, a local thief provided a useful case study.  Dennis Maluk was a heroin addict, living in New Haven.  He stole at least 39 paintings from the greater New Haven area, nothing famous but some of them worth thousands of dollars.  He traded each of them to Bruno Nestir, a local member of a criminal gang, in exchange for a day or two’s worth of heroin.  When police raided Nestir’s home, they found 39 stolen paintings, drugs packaged for street sale, unlicensed firearms, and a wad of cash.  There, in miniature, we see what can happen to stolen art when even small, local criminal gangs are involved.

A larger-scale case study may be found in the 1986 theft of art from Russborough House, a country house in Ireland which has the unusual distinction of having been burgled of its art on four separate occasions, twice by the IRA.  This time it was Martin Cahill, an infamous Irish gangster about whom films have been made.  He and accomplices stole 18 works from Russborough House, including a Vermeer, a Goya, and a Gabriel Metsu.  He figured that he would retire on the proceeds, but Cahill could not find the sort of criminal art collector he expected from books and the movies.  Unable to find a buyer who did not look like a policeman in disguise, he hatched another plan.  He smuggled the Vermeer and the Goya to Antwerp, where he used them as collateral for a loan of 1 million pounds from a diamond merchant who had bought stolen gems from him in the past.  The idea was that the loan would go to buying drugs which would be sold on the street for profit.  Cahill would pay back the loan, and retrieve the paintings, which would go on to act as collateral in future such deals.  That was what was supposed to happen, but the diamond merchant got antsy.  He decided to sell the paintings himself, and he did—to a Scotland Yard undercover agent, who arrested him.  A different work also stolen by Cahill, the Gabriel Metsu, was recovered when police in Istanbul raided a deal between two organized crime groups, trading the Metsu for a shipment of drugs.  In the Cahill case, we see stolen art used as collateral and in a barter system between criminal groups.

The interconnection between drugs, arms, and stolen art is serious.  Art theft might be fun and sexy to read about, but if you are concerned about the drug and arms trade, and even terrorism, then it is something to take seriously.  Hopefully, this new International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods will prompt more accessible and extensive data and better cooperation to both protect the world’s cultural heritage, and to simultaneously impede organized crime.

Dr Charney is a professor of art history specializing in art crime and the founder of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, an international non-profit research group.  He teaches the history of art crime on the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.

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