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Illicit trade in cultural artefacts

The illicit sale of cultural objects stolen from museums or looted from archaeological sites is a growing international problem. Countries in conflict and countries affected by natural disasters are particularly vulnerable.

19th century alabaster Buddha sculpture.
19th century alabaster Buddha sculpture thought to come from Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma). In 2011, an attempt was made to import the sculpture to Norway illegally. The sculpture remained in the custody of the customs authorities until September 2015, when a legal decision was obtained. The sculpture was exhibited in the Museum of Cultural History, Oslo, until it was returned to Myanmar in June 2017. Credit: © Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo/Ellen C. Holte

The proceeds generated by the sale of smuggled objects are used to finance arms deals and the activities of extremist groups, and may ultimately prolong human suffering. Preventing the importation of illicit cultural objects to Norway is an important national contribution to UNESCO’s efforts to restrict illicit trade in cultural objects.

Cultural heritage encompasses important values to be passed on to future generations. Illegal archaeological excavations and the removal of artefacts and cultural objects destroy the scientific basis for studying cultural heritage and national identity. The impact of such criminal acts thus extends far beyond the immediate financial loss.

Although countries in all parts of the world may suffer illegal export and import of cultural objects, countries which have experienced war, crisis or natural disaster are particularly vulnerable to looting and criminal acts. Current examples include Iraq and Syria, where objects stolen from museums, cultural institutions and archaeological sites are being smuggled abroad for illegal sale in the West and elsewhere. The illicit cash flows resulting from these activities are being used, among other things, to fund arms deals and extremist activities.

According to INTERPOL, illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects is one of the most common forms of illicit trade, and generates substantial revenues. Illicit trade in cultural objects cannot be considered in isolation, as it is increasingly linked with other criminal activity. Cross-border crime of this type is a global problem that demands the investment of resources and implementation of preventive measures in origin, transit and destination countries.

Gold earring from Iraq.
Gold earring from Iraq on the ICOM Emergency Red List of Iraqi Cultural Objects at Risk. Credit: ICOM Red List

International initiatives

To combat illicit trade in cultural objects effectively, the international community needs to coordinate efforts and promote collaboration between different organisations and countries. UNESCO has been engaged in this area for many years, working to combat illicit trade within the framework of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The fight against illicit trade in cultural objects raises various challenges, including the fact that the market is global and the increasing mobility of individuals. A further difficulty is that not all artefacts and cultural objects are registered or properly secured by those in charge of them. Although this is particularly the case in developing countries, where cultural heritage management is frequently poor, a public register would also be of benefit in Norway. International collaboration on the registration of stolen art and cultural property, including in INTERPOL databases and the Art Loss Register (a commercial private enterprise), is important, and has helped to return art to its rightful owners. Frequently, stolen artefacts are rediscovered when they are sold online.

In response to growing awareness of the links between illicit trade in cultural objects and international terrorism, the UN Security Council has sought to restrict this source of funding. In February 2015, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2199, which requires all member states to take steps to prevent the illicit trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural artefacts.

In March 2015, by way of initial follow-up of Resolution 2199, Former Minister of Culture Thorhild Widvey and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende issued a joint appeal directed at relevant expert institutions, commercial parties, and others, urging both professionals and the general public to exercise due diligence in connection with purchases of artefacts with unclear origins or provenance.

In view of the close connections between illicit trade in cultural artefacts and other types of organised international crime, including the use of cultural objects as a means of payment or as an instrument for laundering the proceeds of crime, UNODC (the UN Office on Drugs and Crime) has adopted guidelines for its efforts to combat cross-border crimes of this kind. Measures targeting organised crime may help to limit such illicit trade. Norway is actively involved in tackling illicit capital flows and monetary transactions associated with organised crime.

Also, the Government has given NOK 1.15 million in financial support to the UNESCO Action Plan for Iraq, which aims to prevent illicit trade in cultural objects and stop the destruction of cultural monuments. Norway is also actively supporting efforts in this area through its engagement in international organisations and forums.

Efforts to combat illicit trade in cultural objects

Preventing illegal sales of cultural artefacts requires not only the involvement of UNESCO and other international organisations, but also targeted national initiatives. Through such measures, the authorities can help to restrict the funding available to extremists for arms purchases and terrorism. The looting of historical cultural monuments and smuggling of stolen art and cultural objects can only be combated successfully if national authorities take effective steps to eliminate unlawful importation and illicit sales.

The effectiveness of measures to counter illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects depends on close cooperation and interaction between key stakeholders, including cultural authorities, the police, the customs and excise authorities, museums, dealers and, not least, art and cultural experts.

Norway is part of the international market, and so may be both a transit and a destination country for misappropriated artefacts and cultural objects, and a location for the laundering of criminal proceeds. Art and cultural artefacts regularly disappear from museums, private collections and archaeological sites. While some thefts are solved quickly and the artefacts recovered, other objects disappear for decades.

Since Norwegians travel extensively and are relatively well off, it is likely that illicitly appropriated foreign artefacts are also in Norwegian hands. All potential buyers are urged to be particularly careful regarding artefacts which may come from Syria or Iraq. This message is communicated not only to experts, collectors and commercial stakeholders such as art dealers and antiquarians, but also to museums and the general public.

Tourists and other visitors to foreign countries should be cautious, particularly when visiting Turkey, an important transit country for artefacts smuggled from neighbouring countries like Syria and Iraq.

The exporting, importing and trading of cultural property raises many legal and ethical issues. Both museums and private individuals may unwittingly purchase stolen art or illicitly exported cultural objects, and thus be drawn into complicated legal proceedings and return claims.

Purchasers should be warned that section 27 of the Cultural Heritage Act provides that breaches of the Act may be penalised by imprisonment for up to two years.

Information and skills-building

The prevention, discovery and combating of illicit trading and smuggling is often complicated by a lack of expertise on the part of the police and customs and excise staff, as well as among commercial stakeholders and the general public. Greater knowledge is needed about the scale and specific characteristics of the illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects, both in Norway and internationally.

A study conducted in 2008 – Å jobbe med kulturminner (Working with cultural property) – pointed out that Norway needs to provide more training to support skills-building in the customs and excise authorities and police, as these agencies bear primary responsibility for preventing cultural crime. Officers require both general and in-depth briefings on art, cultural history, laws and regulations, training in visual recognition of cultural artefacts and general knowledge about cultural crimes, including the laundering of criminal proceeds.

Regular information campaigns help to raise the awareness of the general public. The Arts Council Norway, the police, the customs and excise authorities, the Norwegian Committee of the International Council of Museums, the Norwegian Blue Shield Committee and, frequently, the Directorate for Cultural Heritage and the Norwegian National Commission for UNESCO collaborate on a range of targeted information measures aimed at preventing illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects.

Nonetheless, the practical experience of customs and excise staff, the police and cultural authorities indicates that many people remain unaware of import and export rules and their obligation to familiarise themselves with the regulations that apply in countries in which they wish to purchase art or cultural artefacts. Many are unaware that they risk fines or imprisonment for up to two years if they intentionally or negligently breach export rules or participate in such a breach.

Nordic conference on illicit trade in cultural objects

Small countries like those in the Nordic region are more likely to be successful in their efforts to combat illicit trade if they succeed in cooperating regionally. Such cooperation is needed at different levels and between different agencies.

In May 2015, the meeting of the Nordic Council of Ministers for Culture adopted a joint statement in response to a proposal by Minister of Culture Thorhild Widvey. Among other things, ministers decided to hold a Nordic conference to explore the potential for broader Nordic collaboration on initiatives against illicit trade in cultural artefacts.

The conference took place in Oslo 2 and 3 December 2015 (link to more information)

Final report: Illicit trade in cultural artefacts: Stronger together: How can the Nordics join forces to stop the illegal import and export of cultural objects? (external website)

The purpose of the conference was to increase knowledge among relevant stakeholders, promote the exchange of experiences and best practice, and provide a forum for discussing the potential for closer Nordic cooperation and measures to improve the utilisation of the Nordic countries’ combined resources.

The conference was primarily intended for customs and excise staff, the police, cultural authorities, antique dealers, auction houses and other relevant parties.

Read the Nordic statement here

Rules on the import and export of artefacts and cultural objects

Norway’s efforts to combat illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects are based on its national obligations under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (ratified in 2007) and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (ratified in 2001).

Through the EEA Agreement, Norway has also signed up to Council Directive 93/7/EEC on the return of cultural objects, and is currently preparing to adapt the existing regulatory framework to Directive 2014/60/EU on the return of unlawfully removed cultural objects.

Through its ratification of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, Norway has committed to complying with the cultural legislation of other countries which have ratified the convention. Accordingly, persons who import a cultural artefact into Norway have a duty to produce a valid export certificate from the exporting country if the laws of that country require one to be issued.

The Ministry of Culture and Equality reports periodically on the follow up of the convention. The primary purpose of these reports is to demonstrate the steps being taken in the various countries, to illustrate the progress being made, to identify obstacles to implementation and to exchange experiences and best practice to help countries to learn from one another.

In recent years, the Ministry of Culture and Equality has introduced various legislative amendments in response to Norway’s accession to international agreements to prevent illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects. The Arts Council Norway has been given various administrative tasks under the regulations governing the export of art and cultural property, including the administration of export permit applications, as well as responsibility for informing the general public, commercial stakeholders and museums of the applicable rules.

Through ratification of international conventions and agreements, Norway has undertaken to:

  • Continue to work to prevent, uncover and combat illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects, both nationally and internationally.
  • Strengthen efforts to prevent illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects through targeted informational measures and by improving awareness of the issues raised by such activities.
  • Consider measures to monitor online sales of art and cultural artefacts.
  • Introduce new, and maintaining existing, initiatives to strengthen cross-sectoral cooperation between different administrative levels and other stakeholders with the aim of developing best practice, coordinating efforts, exchanging information and sharing knowledge about art and cultural crime.
  • Improve knowledge of various aspects of the illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects, nationally and internationally.

Links to more information: