The World Customs Organization has finally published a new report following the 2019 report, covering two years from 2020-2021, probably delayed because of the Covid 19 pandemic.
In the press release we read: “This year, the analysis provided in this Report is based on data collected from 138 Member administrations. Previously composed of six sections, the Report now covers seven key areas of risk in the context of Customs enforcement: Antimoney laundering and terrorist financing; Cultural heritage; Drugs; Environment; IPR, health and safety; Revenue; and Security.” It also states: “The analysis contained in this Report is mainly based on the collection of data from the WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) – a database of worldwide Customs seizures and offences” … “However, the CEN database relies heavily on voluntary submissions by Members hence the quantity and quality of the data submitted to the system has its limitations” … “However, as part of this new methodology, the data and information sources used to elaborate this Report has been enlarged to include various open sources.”
Report is Mostly Based on Open Source Information
While the rest of the report might be “mainly based on the collection of data from the WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN)”, in the introduction to the Cultural Heritage chapter on page 57, the WCO goes further, admitting: “Unfortunately, the data received through the WCO’s Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) in 2020-2021 being incomplete, the following analysis will be mostly based on open source information.”
The result for the Cultural Heritage section is that most of the case studies are based on newspaper articles, sometimes even on events that happened decades ago, and have nothing to do with recent trafficking activities. This is alarming as much of the problem with false data plaguing the cultural property sector stems from misreporting in the media. It is even more alarming when the misleading picture created by a surface reading of the chapter will undoubtedly be used as ‘evidence’ in future campaigns against the art market, as past reports have been.
Take your Magnifying Glass When Looking for Cultural Heritage Crimes
The WCO is supposed to report recent and reliable figures, like figure 3 on page 35, showing that the number of worldwide reported cultural goods cases for 2021 is a mere 156, that is 1.1 case per reporting country… A newly introduced graph in the WCO report (Page 17, Fig. 4) reveals precisely what IADAA has reported over the past years: the illicit trade in cultural heritage is so small that it barely shows in the statistics. Not only is it the smallest category – so small that you have to look carefully in case you miss it – but the graph also shows that seizures have fallen by around 50% between 2019 and 2021. Let’s not forget, too, that the Cultural Heritage category is not limited to antiquities, as so many mistakenly believe; it covers 13 distinct sub-categories, including: all forms of art, antiques and collectables, household items, flora and fauna, books and manuscripts. In 2019, the top three categories of recovered item sub-categories were: Fauna, Flora, Minerals, Anatomy & Fossils; Other; and Hand-painted or Hand-drawn articles and works of art. No mention of antiquities, which did not even warrant its own sub-category.
All of this begs the question as to why, in its chapter on Cultural Heritage, the WCO has chosen to focus exclusively on photographs of seized antiquities (at least one of which, a statuette from Libya seems to be a fake) alongside fossils and coins. The choice appears politically charged.
The WCO has stated in the past and here that there is under-reporting of crime in the culture sector and that it only counts seizures and cases reported via the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN), the implication being that the problem is much larger. It also states that much of the suspicious activity has moved online during the pandemic.
However, the miniscule share of illicit trade represented in its reports over the years by cultural property has been consistent, only now augmented by media reports not sourced via the CEN.
It further boosts this chapter of the report with a summary of Pandora VI, the latest in a seven-year campaign of international operations involving mass seizures and arrests. What the WCO, Europol or Interpol have never done, however, is to provide data on how many of their seizures and arrests later prove to be justified and how many were shown to be related to terrorism financing. It is not just the trade asking for these figures, academic investigators want them too to see how effective these operations are.
Previously the WCO has attempted to rebut IADAA’s analysis of its reports, stating that the figures cannot be relied on. As our analysis always provides transparent sources for the data emanating from the reports, however, the WCO’s case against our analysis simply does not stand up. Ultimately, its figures must be indicative of the global state of affairs; if they are misleading, why publish them?
This article was first published in the September 2022 IADAA Newsletter.
Here you can read the whole WCO Illicit Trade Report 2021.
More articles on cultural property issues are available in our respective archive section.
Read about why laws still harm the art market.