EU’s Action Plan to combat illegal trafficking of cultural goods takes shape: meet 3 projects on the front line

A new initiative by the European Union aims to tackle the illegal trade in cultural goods through an action plan. However, this plan goes beyond traditional law enforcement and policing. Projects such as AURORA, ENIGMA or ANCHISE funded under the Horizon Europe research program, are leveraging new technologies to give an upper hand to police, customs officers, auction houses, and museums. So, what can we expect from them?

Trafficking cultural goods is the third-largest illegal trade in the world, after guns and drugs. In 2020, more than 850,000 artefacts were found and taken away by police, and more than half of them were in Europe, reckons an Interpol report from 2021. But because many cases are not discovered, the real number is probably much higher. Stolen or looted objects are sometimes sold legally, with fake documents about their origins, which happened last year in Belgium.

Enter AURORA, one of the latest European projects to fight illicit trafficking. The €3,5 million project aims to find a way to label objects so that they can be easily identified around the world. Many museums use codes to mark their items, but these codes are not always recognized in other institutes.

Easy to use

“If a customs officer sees a code, they might know that the object belongs to a museum or a public institution, but they won’t know which one”, explains Lujza Varga in Horizon Magazine. As head of Department of the Hungarian National Museum, one of the institutes taking part in the project, she aims ‘to create something easier to use.’ AURORA wants to link artefacts with special markers that can be quickly identified by authorities and experts. These markers will be made using nanotechnology and cannot be seen by people. The project will continue until 2025.

Hungary is an important place for traffickers because it is on the route from the Middle East to Europe. That’s why it’s crucial for Hungary to be part of AURORA. Varga, who coordinates projects and exhibitions at Hungary’s oldest national museum in Budapest, says it’s important to create a system that can be used in all of Europe. This way, potential buyers and the police can easily check if an object is real or not.

Last year three European Heritage Youth Ambassadors shared their thoughts on the fight against illegal trafficking of cultural goods. Read the contributions by Gaëlle Stephan, Jasna Popović and Léa Guillemant here.

More projects

AURORA is one of three projects in the European Union looking to find new ways to stop the trade of stolen goods and protect important historical sites. The other projects are called ANCHISE (€4 million) and ENIGMA (€4 million). The European Commission made a plan in December 2022 to fight against illegal trade in cultural goods. The plan includes sharing more information and training police and customs officers. Europol, the European law enforcement agency, also has an important role in this effort.

One of the reasons why looting is a big problem is because objects are taken out of the ground before archaeologists even know about them. They are not recorded in any database and cannot be reported as stolen. The International Council of Museums makes a list of objects (the so-called Red List) that are often stolen from ‘looting hotspots’ such as Afghanistan, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Libya, Mexico, Syria and Ukraine.

ANCHISE will help identify looted objects. It will not be 100%, but it will alert an officer that the object needs investigation.

Corinne Chartrelle

Mobile app

Corinne Chartrelle, who used to work in the French office against illegal trafficking and is now involved with ANCHISE, says that another problem is armed groups using this trade to get money for terrorism. “We know that stealing from archaeological sites helps terrorists, and we cannot separate the two.” Researchers at the French National School for the Police, where Chartrelle is now based, are further developing a tool called Arte-Fact. It was already made to identify stolen and looted objects under an earlier project.

The idea is simple: you can upload a photo of an item via your phone application, which checks the image against national and international databases of stolen goods. “It will help identify looted objects”, said Chartrelle. “It will not be 100%, but it will alert an officer that the object needs investigation.” The app will also suggest the best experts to contact about that item.

Unique identifier

ENIGMA, like ANCHISE, is also developing a tool to scan police and ICOM databases to find stolen or looted items. The coordinator of ENIGMA, Charalampos Georgiadis, says the tool will work better if all museums use the same methods to describe items at risk.

‘We want to create a unique identifier for objects,’ said Georgiadis, an associate professor at the School of Civil Engineering of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece. This means coming up with standard descriptions that museums can use quickly and without spending too much money. ENIGMA, which will continue until 2025, also wants to use artificial intelligence to search the internet for pictures and information about objects that may be stolen or looted.

According to the projects’ researchers, many European countries like France, Spain, Greece, and Italy have a big problem with theft and looting. And these projects could prove an important weapon to protect Europe’s past. “We don’t want to lose our cultural heritage in Europe”, declares Georgiadis. “It connects us to our past.”