Cultural objects are of major cultural, artistic, historical and scientific importance. Yet, they are often subject to crime, including looting, theft and trafficking. This has a devastating impact on cultural heritage inside and outside the EU, in particular in crisis and conflict areas.
Trafficking of cultural goods is the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property (items of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science). This can take different forms, for example
- theft from cultural heritage institutions or private collections
- looting of archaeological sites
- displacement of artefacts due to war
To efficiently protect cultural heritage against illicit trafficking, a sound legislative framework, international cooperation and a solid base of evidence and well-targeted projects are needed.
EU Action Plan against trafficking in cultural goods
Tackling this complex, inherently transnational criminal phenomenon requires a tailor-made response at EU level, as laid down in the EU Security Union Strategy 2020-2025 and the EU Strategy to Tackle Organised Crime 2021-2025.
On 13 December 2022, the European Commission presented the EU action plan against trafficking in cultural goods. This action plan aims to deter criminals effectively, to address evolving security threats and to protect cultural heritage within and beyond the EU. The action plan builds on existing EU activity and addresses ongoing challenges through: improving prevention and detection of crimes by market participants and cultural heritage institutions; strengthening law enforcement and judicial capabilities; and boosting international cooperation, including with source and transit countries of cultural goods in conflicts and crises.
EU legislative framework
The European Parliament and Council Directive 2014/60/EU on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State introduced arrangements enabling EU Member States to secure the return of cultural objects to their territory that were removed in breach of national measures.
Council Regulation (EC) No 116/2009 on the export of cultural goods ensures uniform controls at the EU's external borders. It does so by subjecting exports to the presentation of an export licence. Individuals can obtain this document through the competent Member State authorities. This document is valid throughout the EU.
Regulation (EU) 2019/880 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 April 2019 on the introduction and the import of cultural goods provides rules on imports into the EU of cultural goods exported from their country of origin.
Various instruments regulate the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural goods internationally. The most important of these instruments is the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a reliable and experienced partner of the EU in combatting the illicit trade of cultural goods, which has implemented several EU-funded projects:
Engaging the European art market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property
This project provided trainings on due diligence, existing policies and regulations at the international and EU level as well as on the role of police and customs and illicit trafficking and related crimes.
A toolkit for European Judiciary and law enforcement
In 2018, EU and UNESCO cooperated on a project aiming to train judicial and enforcement authorities in the Member States for identification, investigation and cooperation on illicit trafficking. As part of the project the co-organisers published a toolkit for European Judiciary and law enforcement.
Protecting Cultural Heritage and Diversity in Complex Emergencies for Stability and Peace
This project aimed to stabilize and to urgently safeguard the population and cultural heritage of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Inter-regional and cross-cutting action to strengthen the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property
This project addressed beneficiaries in the EU Member States, pre-accession countries of the Western Balkans and partner countries of the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) South.
The project has reinforced the skills of key professionals and stimulated new synergies among a wide range of professionals:
- representatives from cultural heritage authorities and museums
- professionals from the banking sector
- the media
- judiciary and law enforcement officials
- civil servants for relevant ministries.
Cooperation with other international bodies
The EU works with other international bodies involved in the protection of cultural heritage:
- Council of Europe
- International Council of Museums
- World Customs Organization
Consolidating a solid base of evidence and information network
A 2019 study on illicit trade in cultural goods contributes to a better understanding of the illicit trade in cultural goods in Europe.
The study provides insights into the various aspects of this issue, such as the sources, transit and destinations of illicitly traded goods. It sheds light on trafficking routes, trends and patterns of trafficking and illicit trade operations, as well as the actors involved.
The authors of the study discuss approaches to measuring the volume of this illicit trade. They explore national and international criminal justice responses to trafficking in cultural goods. At the same time, they also identify the challenges that relevant law enforcement authorities face when implementing effective responses.
Selected ongoing projects
PITCHER - Preventing Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Heritage: Educational Resources
The EU supports the creation of teaching material on the protection of cultural heritage through the Erasmus+ programme. The general objective of the PITCHER project is to design and test a set of open educational resources for educators’ capacity to prepare new learning experiences which support the fight against looting and illicit trafficking of cultural goods.
Three projects have received a grant under under Cluster 2 “Culture, creativity and inclusive society” of the Horizon Europe Programme for the years 2023-2025
ENIGMA - endorsing safeguarding, protection, and provenance management of cultural heritage
ENIGMA shall achieve excellence in the protection of cultural goods and artefacts from man-made threats by contributing to identification, traceability, and provenance research of cultural goods as well as by safeguarding and monitoring endangered heritage sites. ENIGMA objectives are designed to help the involved stakeholders better respond to this complex, and multi-dimensional problem, and leverage active collaboration by fostering and enabling interlinking of databases, and evidence-based deployment of preventative measures.
AURORA - Artwork Unique Recognition and Tracking through chemical encoded data, miniaturized devices and blockchain alliance
The AURORA project aims to demonstrate how chemical marking, miniaturised device, art deep-scan technique, cloud and blockchain based platforms can be combined to create a cost-effective, non-destructive, and non-invasive countermeasure against illegal activities while preserving artifacts. The technologies researched and implemented in AURORA will converge in a digital tool allowing relevant stakeholders, art dealers, curators, auction houses, logistic services, and enforcement agents to easily verify artwork authenticity and provenance, enabling art piece movement tracking.
ANCHISE - Applying New solutions for Cultural Heritage protection by Innovative, Scientific, social and economic Engagement
Crossing the methodology of networking with the innovative results of new technologies developments (3D/ photogrammetry for site monitoring, data engineering and AI for border control object identification and heritage collection protection, spectral fluorescence signature for object authentication), ANCHISE will create an operational set of tools applicable for European contexts and replicable in other situations abroad. The aim of the project is to bring coordinated solutions to the key existing needs in the domain of Cultural heritage protection: 1) Understand, 2) Prevent, 3) Act, 4) Repair.
The idea of the project "NETCHER – NETwork and digital platform for Cultural Heritage Enhancing and Rebuilding" started to take shape after the terrorist attacks in Paris at the end of 2015. Criminal investigations proved that the trafficking of antiquities is a major source of funding for international terrorism.
The participants of this project set up a European network of relevant operators and a Europe-wide charter of good practices to efficiently fight the illicit trafficking of antiquities. The EU financed this project through the Horizon 2020 Programme.