Report from Paris: The challenges behind the fight against trafficking of cultural heritage

By Léa Guillemant

Interregional cooperation: fighting illicit trafficking beyond borders. From left to right: Monika Jones (Moderator), Corrado Catesi (Coordinator, Works of Art Unit, INTERPOL), Flora van Regteren Altena (Senior Policy Advisor, Ministry of Culture, the Netherlands), Nawel Younsi Dahmani (Director Ministry of Culture, Algeria), Jelena Bratonozic (Policy Advisor, Ministry of Culture and Media, Serbia). Image: Léa Guillemant

“How to strengthen the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property?” was the question the UNESCO conference in partnership with the European Union tried to answer last June. Three 2022 European Heritage Youth Ambassadors had the chance to attend the conference, and share their experiences. In the final article in this series, Léa Guillemant reports on how the event opened an international, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational dialogue between professionals to examine concrete measures to strengthen the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property for the future.

There can be intermittent successes; there have been some already. But the definitive victory is not showing itself on the horizon yet

Pomian Krzysztof

The pessimistic statement from the philosopher and historian is a hard but justified view on the ongoing struggles to fight illicit trafficking of cultural property. While the growing demand for cultural property increases looting and illicit trade, professionals engaged in the fight against this crime are facing multiple practical difficulties. If measures are defined to reinforce the actions, when the fight reveals others, the obstacles seem much more complex to overcome.

Same old song

No need to scratch the surface deeply to dig out the practical obstacles that restrict the fight. Like a chorus from an old song: budgetary, legal, political, and human issues and resources keep coming back to the lips of all professionals involved in the fight. 

Without money, actions are difficult to implement. And while increasing budgets seems obvious, where the money would come from is less so. However, in this chain where money is like the air necessary to live, how to respond to human resources needs? 

In this, politicians have a major role to play in the fight. But for them to take the necessary measures, they still have to be sensitive to the protection of cultural heritage. And that is not always the case. From the juridical point of view, for example, if legal tools have been implemented, conventions need to be ratified and their principles implemented to be efficient. 

A critical reading from Pomian Krzysztof during the conference: Image: Léa Guillament

It’s been more than fifty years since the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 exists. As expressed by Pomian Krzysztof, if there were successes, the problem is still here. 

The words of researcher Vincent Négri, specializing in international culture and heritage law, tend to be reassuring: “In international law, time is long.” According to him, we need time to learn from the flaws of the measures and adapt to our new needs. In terms of timeline, 2023 would be a key year.

But why is this a battle worth fighting in the first place? Read Gaëlle Stephan’s article here.

Strengthening means cooperation

To meet the challenges of the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property, a single watchword emerges: cooperation. This must be done interdisciplinary, internationally, and intergenerationally.

When dealing with illicit trafficking of cultural property, a bunch of professionals is involved: from the police to the art dealer, by way of government officials. Thus, cooperation between professionals through understanding, exchanging, and transparency is key to being efficient. The same is true in terms of cooperation between states. International organizations such as UNESCO and INTERPOL call also to settle national specialized police units – if they don’t already exist – that would cooperate with INTERPOL. 

There is a need to develop cooperation and to build a network of representatives in charge of the fight against illicit trafficking at the national and international levels. All actors should know who is in charge to better cooperate. 

Educative programs and social and audiovisual media should be used to raise the general public and the young generation’s awareness of cultural heritage protection

Education becomes another major pillar to prevent crime. From professionals to the general public, the protection of heritage against trafficking must be everyone’s concern. Training addressed to professionals who act directly and indirectly in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property must be reinforced. And by including the general public in the dialogue, it becomes an actor in the protection of its heritage.

Educative programs and social and audiovisual media should be used to raise the general public and the young generation’s awareness of cultural heritage protection. Investing in formal and informal education guarantees you future results. 

What would other concrete measures look like? Read Jasna Popović’s contribution here.

Intertwined fights

But despite all those measures, when money is the motivation – and money makes the world go around – the fight against illicit trafficking could be endless. 

In this capitalist world, the financial value of cultural properties may appeal to malevolent people attracted by profit. Organized crimes are setting up new and more sophisticated smuggling techniques. Globalization and new technologies are becoming assets functioning like networks in their traffic.

They take advantage of the opening of the world market making the phenomenon challenging to monitor for the authorities. The Internet is becoming a new uncontrollable market space with its own rules. While anonymity protects both sellers and buyers, transactions take place in the shadow of the authorities. The latter are overwhelmed by this expansion. The novelty, the scale and the ease of exploitation create new obstacles for the authorities, not yet sufficiently prepared to manage them.

Plenty to discuss with (f.l.t.r.) Catherine Fiankan Bokonga (moderator), Zeynep Boz (Turkish Ministry of Cultura & Tourism), Fallo Baba Keita (Former director School of African Heritage), Carlota Marijuan Rodríguez (ESACH) and Corinne Szteinsznaider (Michael Culture). Image: Léa Guillemant

Unfortunately, behind these organized crimes are also hidden other actors whose primary intentions go beyond enrichment. Two extreme situations then emerge.

It has been demonstrated that the illicit traffic of cultural property finances terrorism. The stakes are no longer of a financial nature but of an ideological, political, and religious order.

A second observation hinders the fight against illicit trafficking. It poses an equally difficult question: what to do when cultural properties become a way to survive or finance population transit? In this situation, at the top of this chain are men, women, and children, who seek to live or migrate to another country for a better life. This facet of trafficking highlights the fight against extreme poverty still on the agenda, as well as other issues that encourage migration such as political or climate issues.

Thus, it is no longer a fight but fights – intertwined. And the definitive victory mentioned by Pomian Krzysztof must be considered in our very conception of development. 

About the author

Enrolled in the International Cooperation on Intercultural Heritage master’s degree (University of Bologna, Italy), European Heritage Youth Ambassador Léa Guillemant mainly focuses her research on the challenges of cultural heritage in international relations.