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Saturday, May 9, 2020

May 09, 2020

Police have arrested more than 100 people and recovered nearly 20,000 stolen artifacts, including a pre-Columbian gold mask from South America, as part of a major international art trafficking crackdown across 103 countries, Interpol announced Wednesday.


  • An effort coordinated by the World Customs Organization, Interpol and Europol, authorities teamed up to open 300 investigations in 103 countries that led to the recovery of 19,000 archaeological artifacts and other pieces.

  • The pieces found include objects looted from war-torn countries, and art stolen from museums and archaeological sites.

  • Argentinian police recovered 2,500 ancient coins up for online auction in a single bust, the largest such seizure of the whole crackdown, followed by an investigation in Latvia that turned up a total of 1,375 coins.

  • At an airport in Madrid, authorities seized rare pre-Columbian artifacts including a gold mask, gold figurines and ancient jewelry that had been looted from Colombia.

  • In a single case, Afghan authorities recovered nearly 1,000 objects from the Kabul airport, just before the departure of a flight that would have taken them to Istanbul, Turkey.

  • Called a “cyber patrol week,” authorities particularly focused on dealing through the internet—an increasingly used tool in the black market for art and antiquities—and almost a third of the artifacts recovered during the crackdown were intended for online sale, according to Europol.

  • The trafficking of cultural objects is often done by the same international criminal networks that deal drugs and weapons, according to Europol—Interpol officials said the secrecy of transactions for looted objects presents opportunities for money laundering and fraud that help finance these organized crime networks.

“Organized crime has many faces. The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them. It is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks,” Europol’s executive director Catherine de Bolle said in a statement. “You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons. We know that the same groups are engaged, because it generates big money.”

According to Europol, the operations took place last fall, but details were only released on Wednesday because of “operations reasons.” The trafficking of art and antiquities, estimated to generate billions of dollars per year, is believed to be one of the world’s most profitable illegal trades, after drug and arms dealing.
Thieves appear to be taking advantage of worldwide coronavirus pandemic lockdowns to acquire and sell ojects—in March, a Van Gogh painting was stolen from a Dutch museum that was closed because of the pandemic, while watchdog groups say they’ve seen an increase in activity from online groups involved in looting mosques and archaeological sites left unprotected in the Middle East and North Africa.