On May 6, 2020, INTERPOL announced that more than 19,000 artifacts and other artworks (including a Colombian gold mask, a carved Romanian lion, and thousands of ancient coins) had been recovered during two operations. These operations, Athena II and Pandora IV, included INTERPOL, Europol, and the World Customs Organization (WCO) and spanned 103 countries to focus on the dismantlement of international criminal networks of art and antiquities traffickers.
In total, the joint initiatives, which ran in the fall of 2019, lead to 101 arrested suspects and 300 opened investigations. According to INTERPOL’s press release, “The criminal networks handled archaeological goods and artwork looted from war-stricken countries, as well as works stolen from museums and archaeological sites.” The trafficked goods ranged from objects unearthed in excavations, works stolen from museums, and looted paintings. Details of the Athena II and Pandora IV are only being released now due to operational reasons.
Much of the stolen artwork had been looted from Colombia but thousands of other objects were seized by Argentinian, Latvian, and Afghan officials—illustrating just how global and collaborative the operation was.
“Organized crime has many faces,” said Catherine de Bolle, the executive director of Europol, “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. 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.”
Indeed, it’s often the case that stolen art can change “owners” and generate a great deal of profit for its illegitimate owners before being recovered by law enforcement. For example, at the height of their power, the Nazis notoriously stole countless art objects from victims of their persecution and auctioned them off afterwards; it’s taken decades for these artworks to be returned to the descendants of their rightful owners.
Similarly, the Ghent Altarpiece, perhaps the most frequently stolen and coveted artwork in world history, has been the target of no less than 13 crimes over the course of its 600-year history. This proves that when artwork is coveted, there is sometimes little that can be done to prevent theft from occurring. However, as evidenced by the success of the recent joint operation between Interpol, Europol and the WCO, sometimes all that’s necessary to achieve justice is a coordinated effort.
Details of the operations
During the operations, law enforcement paid specific attention to the monitoring of online marketplaces and sales sites since the internet is a prominent factor of illicit trade of cultural goods.
In fact, during “cyber patrol week,” the Italian Carabinieri led police and customs experts, Europol, INTERPOL, and WCO in the mapping of active targets in order to develop intelligence packages. This effort resulted in the seizure of 8,670 cultural objects for online sale, representing 28 percent of the total number of artifacts recovered during the international crackdown.
Another highlight occurred when police officers in Spain recovered several rare pre-Colombian objects at Madrid’s Barajas airport. These artifacts included a Tumaco gold mask, gold figurines, and pieces of ancient jewelry. All of the artifacts had been illegally acquired by looting in Colombia.
Nine traffickers were arrested in Spain and Colombian police carried out searches in Bogotá, resulting in the seizure of 242 more pre-Colmbian objects, the largest confiscation in the country’s history.
Additional highlights of the operations were listed in INTERPOL’s press release:
- Afghan Customs seized 971 cultural objects at Kabul airport just as the objects were about to depart for Istanbul, Turkey.
- The investigation of a single case of online sale led to the seizure of 2,500 ancient coins by the Argentinian Federal Police Force (Policia Federal Argentina), the largest seizure for this category of items, while the second largest seizure was made by Latvian State Police (Latvijas Valsts Policija) for a total of 1,375 coins.
- Six European Police forces reported the seizure of 108 metal detectors, demonstrating that looting in Europe is still an ongoing business.
INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock said, “The number of arrests and objects show the scale and global reach of the illicit trade in cultural artefacts, where every country with a rich heritage is a potential target.” The INTERPOL Chief added, “If you then take the significant amounts of money involved and the secrecy of the transactions, this also presents opportunities for money laundering and fraud as well as financing organized crime networks.”
These operations were the second time that INTERPOL, Europol, and WCO have come together to tackle the illicit trade in cultural heritage. The three organizations also jointly ran a 24-hour Operational Coordination Unit (OCU) that carried out checks against various international and national databases.