The illicit trade of antiquities and similar cultural-heritage objects is as old as the societies that originally produced them. From the Pyramids of Giza and Egyptian tomb-robbers after their golden relics through the cemeteries of Corinth disturbed by Roman soldiers after old Greek vases for wealthy buyers back in Italy to today’s Daesh inflicting looting and destruction in Syria and beyond – the main and constant motivation behind such delinquent behaviors was, and still is, profit.
The consequences of such actions not only impact upon our emotions and/or the artistic integrity of the afflicted items: millennia-old relics bring profits – huge profits – to organized crime. The involvement of this last beneficiary is the chief and most important reason law enforcement should pursue an effective tackling of the illicit trade in cultural objects. The following paper briefly presents from a law enforcement-viewpoint the scale of the problem and proffers something towards its curtailment and perhaps eventual solution.
The illicit trade of antiquities and cultural-heritage objects had existed in all the Mediterranean countries long before the rise of Daesh: Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, amongst others, have during the past and still now are facing the loss of their cultural heritage. Recent cases such as the return of ancient coins in Greece or a fragment from a Roman sarcophagus to Turkey are but small triumphs and timely indicators of a vastly larger problem. The situation is further complicated when terrorists decided to exploit this avenue for their own purposes. Recently, large-scale research in Greece has proved a decades-old suspicion: the mass involvement of organized crime in cases related to antiquities smuggling.
According to that research, in a thorough examination of 363 cases and reliable denunciations taking place over 10 years (1999-2009), has revealed that the involvement of organized crime was on a significant scale. Specifically, the involvement of organized crime occurred in 30% of the cases reviewed. Moreover, this criminal action had attracted people from all over the social web, such as civil servants, academics, freelancers, private employees down to the unemployed, to name but a few sectors. This broad spectrum of perpetrators is very worrisome: the majority of the people arrested where organized crime was involved had no previous criminal records. Most fell into those professional categories that were able to hide and launder the money gained.
Military Guns and Explosives
The detailed examination revealed the existence of even more dangerous consequences for society. The illicit trade in cultural heritage objects is intertwined with other more sinister activities. According to the logs of materials confiscated on the arrests as made by the law enforcement units, antiquity smugglers had in their possession not only ancient relics, but often guns and explosives. Most of the guns can be considered to be of military grade, such as Kalashnikovs, pistols and revolvers. In addition, explosives and devices for triggering the same have been confiscated. The nature of the collaboration between these two different classes of criminal is still far from fully appreciated, but enough is known to set alarm bells ringing for all the law enforcement units confronting the malefactors.
The illicit trade in antiquities knows no borders. Countries with a significantly rich cultural heritage to the south in Europe and in the Near East – such as Greece, Israel, Bulgaria and Iraq – supply the unending demands in the countries of the north (e.g. the UK, Switzerland), and the New World (e.g. the USA). The research revealed that in over 200 cases, 37 involved the trafficking of Greek artefacts that were sold (or an attempt made to) to private collections, museums or through auction-houses. The destined target-countries of choice for the criminals were Germany, the U.S.A., France, Ukraine, Turkey, Argentina, and even Romania.
Furthermore, relics stolen from other countries were detected and confiscated in Greece: artefacts of Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Bulgarian, Albanian and Italian origins.
How Should Law Enforcement Confront the Phenomenon?
Fortunately, international organizations are well aware of the scale of the problem: they confront this illicit trade in many ways, including integrated workshops in many places to increase the effectivity of their counter-measures. For example, the OSCE has already conducted workshops in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Cyprus, Montenegro, Italy and Mongolia. Moreover, the OSCE Transnational Threats Department, Border Security Management Unit is even now preparing a new Manual for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. This manual takes a different approach from the norm: it sets out a series of practical law-enforcement processes at grass-roots level whereby effective, practical and relatively simple specific measures can be generated to both protect against and react to all sorts of threats. Furthermore, the OSCE is setting up a specialized platform named OSCE POLIS PLATFORM to support and develop educational programs for law enforcement online.
The actuality and consequences of the illicit trade in antiquities and cultural heritage objects know no boundaries or political borders; they create conditions for organized gangs of criminals of different nationalities to co-operate: they threaten and undermine societies. Co-operation between national law-enforcement units – such as police units, border troops, coastal forces – and national politicians, law-makers and civil servants in the ministries of culture and justice is mandatory. As is collaboration and teamwork at the international level. Only thus may we confront effectively and efficiently this pernicious, dangerous and anti-social behavior.
By Sotiriou Konstantinos-Orfeas, Student of National School of Public Administration and Local Government. Former Police Sergeant, Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Department of the Hellenic Police; OSCE BSMU External Consultant; BA/MA Archaeology, UoA