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Culture and Creativity

Protection against illicit trafficking

cultural heritage illicit traficking

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:

  • 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 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.

International cooperation

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 implements several EU-funded projects:

Engaging the European art market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property

This project implemented by UNESCO 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.

Find out more about the project.

A toolkit for European Judiciary and law enforcement

The European Union cooperated with UNESCO in 2018 on training judicial and enforcement authorities in the Member States for identification, investigation and cooperation on illicit trafficking. The project organised training modules on prevention and investigation of cultural property-related crime for the relevant professional groups (including police and custom officers).

As part of the project the co-organisers published a toolkit for European Judiciary and law enforcement.

Find out more about the project.

Protecting Cultural Heritage and Diversity in Complex Emergencies for Stability and Peace

The project aimed to allow for the stabilization and urgent safeguarding of the cultural heritage of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen as well as their population.

Find out more about the project.

Inter-regional and cross-cutting action to strengthen the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property

The overall objective of the initiative is to reduce the illicit trafficking of cultural property in the EU and beyond. This project, implemented by UNESCO, addresses beneficiaries in

  • EU Member States
  • pre-accession countries of the Western Balkans
  • partner countries of the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) South.

The project reinforces the skills of key professionals and stimulates 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.

Find more information on the UNESCO’s website.

Cooperation with other international bodies

The EU works with other international bodies involved in the protection of cultural heritage:

  • Council of Europe
  • Unidroit
  • Interpol
  • 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 projects


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 finances this project through the Horizon 2020 Programme.

Find out more about the NETCHER project.

Other useful resources on illicit trafficking