The Latest

EU Parliament Warns Cultural Racketeering Continues to Finance Terrorism

September 6, 2019

On September 5 in Brussels, Belgium, Members of the European Parliament (MEP), senior European Union (EU) officials, law enforcement, and international experts came together for “Financing Terrorism through Trafficking of Cultural Goods: Closing the Gaps.”

The Antiquities Coalition was honored to participate in this half-day event, which explored legislative and law enforcement solutions to cultural racketeering, and was organized by MEP and former Polish Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga. It was headlined by Colonel (Retired) Matthew Bogdanos, now Assistant District Attorney of New York County, who presented on his team’s work to investigate and prosecute traffickers of ancient art. EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove also gave special remarks on the existing terrorist threat and the way forward for the EU.

Executive Director Tess Davis spoke about the need to protect our world heritage—as well as the legitimate art market—from criminals, war profiteers, and violent extremist organizations. She detailed how the global art market is the largest unregulated market in the world and uniquely vulnerable to trafficking, fraud, forgery, tax evasion, money laundering, sanctions violations, and terrorist financing. Thankfully, the United States and EU, making up such a large percentage of worldwide sales, have a unique opportunity to combat these crimes. 

Davis also officially announced the launch of the Antiquities Coalition’s latest interactive resource, “Cultural Piracy: Mapping Antiquities Seizures Around the Globe.” This tool illustrates the illicit trade in artifacts from the Middle East and North Africa by plotting reported seizures over the last five years. So far it includes 231 incidents and 166,246 individual objects, which total an estimated $63,762,255. However, because only 5% of the objects had reported values, the actual amount is likely much higher.

In addition to Davis, other speakers included representatives from the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the World Customs Organization (WCO), and the Art Crime Unit of France. Given the solutions-oriented approach of the event, their remarks focused on best practices that can be adopted both at the national and EU levels to close existing legal loopholes. Key takeaways included:

  • The International Community Must Remain Vigilant: In Iraq and Syria, the illicit trade is changing following the welcome collapse of Daesh (ISIS), as cultural racketeers “switch hats” from fighters to gangsters. However, business continues to thrive, even if profits are no long centralized under one false “Caliphate.” Authorities suspect Daesh-looted pieces are being stored in unknown locations until they can be safely laundered onto the legitimate market. Meanwhile, new evidence is coming to light from other conflict antiquities hotspots, such as Libya and Yemen. The criminal and terrorist financing threat remains and likewise the international community must remain vigilant.
  • Political Will Is Growing: There is growing political will to tackle cultural racketeering, as demonstrated by this event, as well as recent legislative developments in the EU. This April 17, the European Parliament passed Regulation 2019/880, which subjects cultural property imports to uniform controls throughout the EU, and moreover, declares that “the introduction of cultural goods[…] which were removed from the territory of the country where they were created or discovered in breach of the laws and regulations of that country shall be prohibited.” This regulation is binding and self-executing, meaning it was automatically and uniformly applied in its entirety by all 28 Member States. Experts expressed concern that these new laws may make the U.S. market more attractive to cultural racketeers unless comparable action is taken.
  • The Importance of Transatlantic Partnership: Cultural racketeering is a global problem and requires a global solution. However, since the U.S. and the EU combined make up around 75% of the global art market, they have a unique opportunity—and responsibility—to make a difference. Events such as this one are crucial to ensure that lawmakers and law enforcement cooperate across the Atlantic and such increased cooperation between our respective governments could make a huge impact.
  • The Legal Trade is Key to Combatting Looting: All speakers stressed that the illicit trade is a major threat to the legitimate trade—and on the other hand—the stronger the legitimate trade, the weaker the illicit trade. It is critical for governments, law enforcement, and art world leaders to join forces to protect both our world heritage and the art market.