Illegal trafficking of cultural goods in countries in conflict

From the identification of objects to the judicialization of cases

Extract from PATRIMOINES – The journal of the National Heritage Institute, entitled ‘’East heritages’’ : « Le trafic illicite des biens culturels dans les pays en conflit. De l’identitification des objets à la judiciarisation des affaires », in Patrimoines, Paris, 15 (2020), p. 58-65.

Vincent Michel, Professor of Archaeology of Classical Antiquity of the East (University of Poitiers – HeRMA) and expert in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural goods in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), director of the French Archaeological Mission in Libya and at Haram Ramet el Khalil’s, Hebron, in the Palestinian territories

Destruction of sites perpetrated by Daech since 2001 has had profound and lasting repercussions because of the media coverage. These televised traumas have been accentuated by the fact that it’s in the name of the same ideology that Daech has committed attacks on European soil – particularly in France, as at the Bataclan in November 2015 – thus giving Europe its share of atrocities.

This awareness was immediate and lasting, and the multiple responses were manifold, in the continuity of ‘’Fifty French proposals to protect the heritage of humanity’’ presented in 2015 by Jean-Luc Martinez, President-Director of the Louvre, with a legislative arsenal aimed at fighting the illicit trafficing of cultural property.


The destruction in March 2001 of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban provoked very strong emotion in the international community, who watched with astonishment as an irreplaceable heritage site disappeared for good; but this emotion unfortunately subsided rather quickly and the case, happening in a too remote country, was quickly forgotten by the public. Conversely, the looting and symbolic destruction of the Mosul Museum in February 2015 and of the site of Palmyra in April 2015, which were cleverly mediatized by Daech, shook French public opinion.

Even though some laws were already in preparation even before these events, the law reinforcing the fight against organized crime, terrorism and their financing of June 3, 2016 created a criminal offense[1] to punish intentional participation in the illicit trafficking of cultural property originating from a theater of operations of terrorist groups and the so-called LCAP law (law relating to freedom of creation, architecture and heritage) of July 7, 2016 notably established customs control on the import of cultural property,[1] and no longer only on its export. At the international level, let us mention in this same vein the important United Nations Security Council Resolution 2347 on the protection of cultural heritage at risk of March 24, 2017.

Since the Arab Spring of 2011, we can measure how the destruction of heritage, the looting of sites and the illicit trafficking of cultural property are the result of these times of change and crisis, cultural property being a privileged target for occasional looters but also for terrorist groups. It is a highly profitable trade that feeds a large underground economy oriented towards the European and American market. It is also rapidly evolving due to conflicts, disparate law enforcement policies and capabilities and the displacement of wealth to other countries, now affecting Eastern Europe, Asia and the Gulf countries. The economic benefits gained from this illegal market, which according to the sources are estimated between 3 and 15 billion dollars, are colossal. Even if these are unverifiable estimates, their interest is to make people aware of the scale of this traffic, which is far from negligible compared to the legal world art market – 63.7 billion dollars in total for the year 2018. This financial manna easily gives rise to the lust of criminals and the development of all kinds of illicit trafficking in cultural goods, particularly those originating from the Middle East, where conflicts are amplifying the phenomenon.

In terms of volumes, data are scarce; it is estimated that almost 16,000 cultural goods from the sole Syria have been seized in Europe since the adoption of Resolution 2347.[1] Worldwide, since 2014, there have been 231 seizures, corresponding to 166,246 objects from the MENA region, for an estimated total of almost 64 million dollars, mainly in source or intermediary countries such as Turkey (87), Egypt (59) and Syria (16), and in recipient countries such as the United States (13), France (5), the United Kingdom (5), Spain (3), Germany (2), or Malta (1)… This list doesn’t include cultural property from other countries in conflict or the many more that have not been seized.

The importance of the latter can be guessed from the satellite photos of cultural sites in these regions, such as Apamea or Mari in Syria, revealing the lunar aspect of the sites devasted by looters. These goods are still secretely circulating or have already been acquired.

The suspicions of direct or indirect links with terrorism and organised crime are growing: Khaled El Bakraoui, one of the perpetrators of the 2016 attacks in Brussels – at Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek metro station – was previously involved in art trafficking, as were, more recently, Jaume Bagot and Oriol Carreras Palomar, two Barcelona antique dealers, arrested on 31 March 2018, and suspected of financing jihadist terrorism through the illicit trafficking of antiquities from Libya.

The looting and illicit trafficking of such archaeological objects is per nature global as all countries are affected, both in the Near East and North Africa, and in Asia and Latin America, where thousands of objects are looted from museums or discovered during illegal excavations at archaeological sites. France, the second most affected country in Europe by trafficking after Italy, is therefore not spared; the main damage to archaeological heritage, apart from theft, remains the use of metal detectors outside the frame of any authorised scientific operations.[1] The discoveries made with such equipment, which are beyond any institutional control, illegally feed the art market, which is also increasingly active on the Internet.

Sculpted marble slab seized by customs at Roissy CDG airport – PARIS – France


Political instability and the presence of local militias encourage the development of theft, looting, destruction and trafficking in countries in conflict, the more so as the State authorities have other priorities other than the protection of archaeological sites, does not assert itself in this area. In addition to the damage caused by natural disasters and lack of maintenance, the heritage is directly targeted or becomes the victim of collateral damage.

In the first case, it is a question of targeted terrorist destruction where, from Nimroud in Iraq to Palmyra in Syria, thousands of archaeological sites have been visited, looted and sometimes destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of objects, from the simplest, smallest – coins, ceramics – to the largest – sculptures, cut-out mosaic panels – passed through Daech’s hands before supplying the illegal art market. Destruction for religious reasons also often happens, including attacks by Salafist extremists on mausoleums, schools, mosques and holy places of Sufi obedience in Libya and Mali, and the destruction of Shiite shrines mosques in Iraq. These are not, strictly speaking, the direct consequences of war, but of inter-religious struggle in a climate of anarchy, impunity and religious tensions.

Acts of vandalism are also a major plague affecting heritage; although they have always existed, they are increasing due to the lack of surveillance of the sites.

At the same time, the destruction of heritage is also the consequence of other phenomena, in particular the galloping and uncontrolled urbanism, especially with the unregulated expansion of modern cities which encroach on archaeological sites by uncontrolled constructions. In the absence of policy and respect for the preservation of sites, the necropolises surrounding towns and cities suffer the main destructions, particularly in Libya. Whereas the land owners didn’t dare to build in their land under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, the lack of State authority since 2011 has led to a situation of land grabbing and construction inside protected archaeological areas. The adages that could be heard from some Libyans, such as “Possession is worth a title” and “Let’s make the most of it” have been widely put into practice since 2011. It will be difficult to dislodge these self-proclaimed owners afterwards.

Destruction can thus also be caused by senseless real estate projects.

Other factors lead to the destruction of sites, as in Jordan, Syria and Iraq: the use of ancient structures as quarries, the conversion of old tells (artificial hills) – due to the strategic nature of their locations – into military or refugee camps. Globally, for reasons unrelated to conflicts, agricultural works deeply damage up to 30% of the archaeological sites, due to ploughing, irrigation works and earthworks.[5]

Maamoun Abdulkarim, former General Director of Antiquities
and Museums of Syria with funerary steles from Palmyra

The main consequences are the destruction of monuments and the accidental discovery of artefacts that are not inventoried by the Antiquities Department of the affected countries: they circulate and thus feed the art market, leading in turn to looting and clandestine excavations that turn antiquities into “blood antiquities” – illicitly traded to finance criminal activities. Depending on the country, the looting is not as spectacular as in Iraq and Syria, but still it exists. It takes the form of more or less direct attacks, taking advantage of the chaos to appropriate antiquities deprived of their context, turning sites into veritable open-air “antiquities supermarkets”. Moreover, whereas the local population’s lack of awareness of the financial value of the country’s archaeological wealth has long contributed to the protection of the heritage, we are currently witnessing more thefts in isolated areas. Looters, whether occasional or expert, are increasingly aware of the market value of antiquities thanks to the Internet and everywhere, sales sites with promising names are flourishing, such as “Opensouk” alongside the well-known “ebay”, “Leboncoin” and other semi-private groups on “Facebook”, which are now traditional in France.



Why such an interest in cultural goods, what makes them so singularly attractive? The soil of the countries of the East and North Africa abounds with objects that are easy to find. Objects picked up on the surface or at shallow depths circulate more easily than weapons and drugs. The deteriorating economic situation and increasing unemployment encourage archaeological looting, and trafficking in antiquities provides some people with an important source of immediate income. For others, cultural goods are very lucrative financial investments, since the purchased objects gain in value over time. In addition, the final selling price of an antique can reach several hundred times its initial value when it leaves its territory of origin, allowing a considerable financial gain to be made.

Like any other market, the market of cultural goods, whether legal or illegal, is primarily organised according to the law of supply and demand – no buyer, no market – so the lack of awareness of the population with regard to their heritage and the unawareness of buyers with regard to the patrimonial damage inexorably maintain the trade in antiquities. Another problem linked to illicit trafficking is the existence of a legal art market, open and eminently lucrative, which will attract all kinds of parallel trafficking for profit: there is no clear boundary between goods of licit origin and illicit goods is not always very clear, and this is reinforced by an opaque and sometimes ambiguous art market.



All artefacts can potentially be trafficked. However, it is obvious that depending on the country, certain types of objects will be more sought after than others, as they are characteristic of a specific region or period.

Our main problem is that criminals take advantage of our difficulty, at times, to establish the place of origin of artefacts. Without a well-established and recorded excavation context, once these objects have entered the art market, it becomes difficult to identify their provenance. In Cyrenaica (a region located in the east of Libya)[6], the Greek and Roman periods are well documented; but in these periods, the material culture is very homogeneous throughout the Mediterranean basin, making it difficult to distinguish between a Greek work from Libya and a Greek work from another region!

Nevertheless, some objects are still sufficiently specific to allow us to identify their regions of origin with precision: we are then in a position to unveil highly targeted trafficking, as illustrated by the trade in half-statues of a funerary deity from the Greek and Hellenistic periods and funerary portraits from the Roman period coming from various necropolises of Cyrenaica. These objects clearly show the extent of this traffic, that strated in 2011 and targets some particularly sought-after goods.

In the fight against illicit trafficking, we are facing different situations The less frequent case is when a stolen object already listed in the official inventory of a museum is on sale; traceability is therefore easy, seizure is quick, investigation is straightforward and restitution is possible.

In the vast majority of cases, however, we can not prove the provenance of the artefact because it is not inventoried and has been clandestinely excavated. Investigators and experts pay particular attention to objects coming from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Mali which makes the sale of archaeological artefacts from these countries increasingly difficult. It is therefore frequent that the identity of these cultural goods is modified to pass smoothly into a legal sale, whether they are presented with a false provenance or a false collection history, in order to cloud their traceability and avoid any reference to their true origin. The London press has reported on the case of a half-statue of a funerary deity from Cyrenaica, an exemplary case of the trade mentioned above: imported to England from Dubai in 2011, identified by a false declaration as a “marble decoration” having “more than a century”, the object was estimated 110,000 pounds, and presented as being part of a private collection since 1977. The statue was finally seized when a customs officer was surprised at the derisory price of the object, whose identity had once again changed to “Greek sculpture of the 16th century”. During a trial in 2015, the statue was finally estimated at over £2 millions! It is currently being returned to Libya.

A seizure can also take place not at the time of the arrival of the sculptures on the official market of the recipient country, but when they leave the source country.

The Egyptian port police carried out a targeting seizure in 2015 in Damietta, on a shipment that about to leave for Bangkok. Inside the container, they found 1,124 artefacts, mostly of Egyptian origin, but also 5 Cyrenean sculptures described as being of incredible quality. Every year, in the Old City of Jerusalem as well as in Tel Aviv, a strange phenomenon is observed: Roman funerary busts of Cyrenaica are for sale in several antique shops, some still covered with fresh terra rossa! Outside Libya, another customs raid in 2016 led to the discovery in a wooden crate of objects in transit through Roissy. The provenance indicated by the documents concerning these objects intrigued the customs officers. They stipulated that the shipment came from Lebanon, a country bordering a war zone, was bound for Thailand, a known transit country, and that they were simply “ornamental stones for garden decoration”.

Strong suspicions led to opening the crates and discovering that they in fact contained two very rare Syrian-Iraqi bas-reliefs in marble of the Antiquity. They were immediately seized!

Destruction of bas-reliefs by a member of Daech at the Mosul Museum in February 2015.


Daech has destroyed but also buried or dispersed a large number of antiques which, according to some experts, such as the Belgian Gilles de Kerchove, are waiting, hidden in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Turkey, to resurface on the international art market around 2030. This projection is a hypothesis based on the timespan elapsed between the first looting in Iraq in 2003 and the appearance on the Western market of the first antiques that came from it, ten to fifteen years later. However, it is not an exact science, as recent cases show that antiquities collected by Daech are already on the black market or in transit in Asian countries, in the Gulf countries or in free ports. The Belgian journalist Frédéric Loore, in his investigations on the illicit trafficking of cultural goods,[7] has highlighted shorter timespans, as shown by the two following examples: three or four years for the sale in Belgium, in 2014, of two Egyptian statues stolen during the Arab Spring of 2011 from a museum in Cairo; about four years for the sale, in 2016, of two steles suspected to come from a looting of the site of Mari in Syria, which strated in 2012. Finally, a police operation in Jaume Bagot’s Spanish art gallery in March 2018showed that looted pieces could circulate in record time – in two to four months during 2015 -, proof of the existence of a short and complex circuit of objects from Cyrenaica, transiting through Egypt to the United Arab Emirates before reaching Germany and then Spain, either directly or via Turkey. The traffickers made the routes more complex and multiplied the number of steps to dispose of the objects. The aim is to cover their tracks by going through numerous intermediaries, thus limiting traceability, preventing the authorities from tracing the routes and discovering the theft or concealment. There are a number of techniques for laundering objects in order to bring antiques into the legal circuit, to which can be added false certificates of authenticity, the invention of a fictitious story, the succession of sales of the same object, and so on.

Statue of an ancient funerary deity from the necropolis of Cyrene.


The “small” traffic is mainly local and is aimed at tourists and rich “locals”; small objects – jewellery, coins, statuettes, religious books – circulate easily and they are easy to transport because of their small size; they are also increasingly carried by the massive influx of refugees who use them as a very practical currency to pay the smugglers. Conversely, the “big” trade in antiquities is international in scope, is aimed at private collections and involves larger objects with a much higher market value. In order to dispose of their merchandise by following more or less winding and complex routes, networks for the illicit trafficking of cultural property will often be grafted onto existing arms or drug sales networks. These networks are set up between the “source countries”, which have often been the same for decades, such as Greece, Egypt, Tunisia, Latin American countries, to which are added other, “newer” countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen… We note that the traffickers’ routes are evolving, as the “receiving countries” tend to change. If, following the example of New York, London and Paris remain two commercial centres where competition is strong, Spain and Belgium, as well as Holland and Luxembourg, appear as the “underbelly” of Europe. They are also countries with more moderate legislation and actions in the fight against art trafficking. In addition, Russia, Japan and China, as well as the Gulf States, are pursuing offensive policies of acquisition of works of art to fuel their cultural projects.

Finally, the picture is completed by the “intermediate countries” which take over from the traditional countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Switzerland. The works now transit through Asia, via Bangkok and the free port of Singapore, which are today hubs of this traffic, as well as the Gulf countries and Israel, recognised both as intermediary and receiving countries.



Faced with these attacks, we must all be aware that the fight against the illicit traffic of cultural goods must become a priority: it requires the reinforcement, harmonisation and adaptation of the legislative framework, at national and international level, and above all the application of coercive texts and dissuasive sanctions. In order to identify, seize and return objects that could come from this traffic, we must set up an organisation the entire process, from the identification of objects to the judicialization of cases, and get all the actors who too often ignore each other – archaeologists and curators, investigation services, justice and the world of the art market – to collaborate, so that everyone plays an effective role alongside international organisations such as UNESCO, ICOM, Iccrom and Icomos.

Close coordination between all these players is the sine qua non for success. Without this awareness, any struggle will remain ineffective.

Such coordination makes possible the multiple interventions and actions needed in the fight against trafficking in cultural goods. First of all, it is essential to create a data repository, thanks to a “task force” made up of “experts” – academics, museum curators, art historians and archaeologists – who must gather up-to-date academic literature but also keep a watch on the Internet and on social networks, according to their various specialities, by listing and studying the objects circulating on the art markets[8], they can be helped in this task by a few students who will be given targeted research topics concerning the endangered objects.

Archiving objects passing through sales, inventorying collections, documenting sites, these are the main tools for effectively combating trafficking. The use of new technologies – such as search engines for recognition by visual similarity – also appears to be a priority for highlighting channels of sale. It is then a question of having police units specialised in this type of very specific expertise, or of reinforcing their means, gendarmes, customs officers and police officers, who will cross-reference this information with information from their databases listing stolen goods – Treima for OCBC[9], Archeo for customs, not forgetting those of Interpol – and also to make use of the emergency “Red Lists” of endangered cultural property published by ICOM containing a list of general categories of objects that are threatened and therefore susceptible to be stolen and circule on the art market.

Fragment of carved ivory (Nimrud, 8th century BC)
from the looting of the Baghdad museum in 2003.

As a matter of fact, it is very difficult to establish that non-inventoried objects coming from clandestine excavations were looted, and they are the most numerous to flood the market; also the Icom lists prove to be very effective, when confronted with such artefacts, as they can foster a doubt and increase diligence about their provenance and traceability. The method of converging clusters of clues is therefore necessarily applied in this type of investigation, to ensure that the national authorities’ capacity to identify and apprehend antiquities of illicit origin is strengthened, to unveil dubious sales and those involved in trafficking: behind a cultural object may be hiding a theft, a crime, a concealment and even an entire criminal organisation! European customs and police authorities, supported by Europol, Interpol and the World Customs Organization, sometimes join forces to effectively fight against trafficking in cultural goods through joint and hard-hitting actions such as “Pandora III” in July 2019, which has made it possible to target across Europe169 websites, arrest 59 people and seize more than 18,000 items of cultural property.

Apart from the OCBC, customs thus play a fundamental role in controlling all legal movements of cultural goods (their import, export and even circulation) and repressing fraudulent trafficking. Nevertheless, we still need to raise awareness and train in this type of case police and customs officers as a whole, leading to the consultation of a network of experts upstream to the trial downstream. The dialogue between the different actors must be strengthened through targeted thematic workshop (Ministry of Culture, UNESCO, National Heritage Institute, Ecole du Louvre, University of Poitiers…), but also through the development of European collaborative projects, such as “Netcher” (formerly “Polar”), bringing together police officers and archaeologists and financed by “Horizon 2020’’[10].

The justice system also needs trained magistrates specialised in dealing with cases of trafficking in cultural property. Not only are the courts congested, but priority is not given to cultural cases. Added to this is a gap in the training of magistrates, who are not taught the Heritage Code! It is necessary to make cases more judicious, to play on the complementarity of the applicable Codes (Civil Code, Criminal Code, Heritage Code, Customs Code, Commercial Code, etc.) and to cast opprobrium on thieves or receivers by publishing their court judgements; all these actions would be facilitated by the creation of a National Public Prosecutor’s Office for Cultural Property.



If educated people are convinced of the urgency of the fight against this scourge, if the investigation services and the justice system are mobilised, the fact remains that nothing can be done until the population is sufficiently sensitised, from adults to children in their school environment. People who are proud of their heritage, educated and aware of their past do not steal – or destroy – or little. In France, the public is highly alerted during the National Days of Archaeology and the European Heritage Days. In countries in conflict, faced with a State focused on something else than protecting its heritage, actions aimed at the populations must be encouraged, so that they can reappropriate their histories and heritage, in order to strengthen the link between past and present, between populations of different eras and geographical horizons.

The Louvre Museum is pursuing this ambition in its rehabilitation of the Mosul Museum, as is the “French Archaeological Mission of Libya”, by setting up a project to rehabilitate the National Museum of Tripoli alongside the Libyan Department of Antiquities. The aim is to reconcile the country’s inhabitants with their heritage, which they were unable to discover under the obscurantist regime of Muammar Gaddafi (from 1969 to 2011): thanks to the mediation of objects in museums and monuments on sites; the aim is to make them understand that the sites are unique and that their destruction is irremediable.

In France, this is also the meaning of the exhibition-dossier that I will soon[11] be co-organising at the Louvre Museum with Ludovic Laugier – curator at the Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities – on this theme in order to alert public opinion, to make objects from countries in conflict unsaleable, to discourage conniving sellers and to encourage buyers to be vigilant about the provenance and traceability of objects. Several sculptures seized by the OCBC and French customs will be exhibited there for the first time in application of article L.111-10 of the Heritage Code, “the time of investigation and search for the legitimate owner”.

The fight against cultural crime, destruction, looting and trafficking is a challenge that we must all take up, in a spirit of close collaboration to be more effective in preserving heritage.



[1] Article 322-2 of French Heritage Code.
[2] Article 111-8 of French Heritage Code.
[3] Under
[4] Article L. 542-1 of French Heritage Code
[5] See on this subject, on the website d’EAMENA, « Endangered Archeology in the Middle East and in North Africa » :
[6] Vincent Michel works in Libya since 2001, in particular on the Latrun area, and he is the director of the French archaeological mission of Libya (mission archéologique française de Libye – MALF) since 2011.
[7] See
[8] Claire Chastanier, assistant to the Deputy Director of Collections at the Ministry of Culture, carries out a control of the circulation of cultural goods; a documentary watch is carried out by Yann Brun, specialist in heritage security at the same ministry, by students such as Morgan Belzic, doctoral student at the EPHE and MAFL, Camille Blancher, archaeology student and Jorge Palumbo, doctoral student specialising in archaeomafia in Sicily at the University of Poitiers, under my direction.
[9] The OCBC (French Central Office for the Fight against Trafficking in Cultural Goods) is a specialised police unit.
[10] « Horizon 2020 » is the French portal of the European programme for research and innovation.
[11] Because of Covid-19, the exhibition will be programmed in 2022.