World Customs Organisation Illicit Trade Report 2016

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from the IADAA Newsletter

March  22, 2018 – The newly published report adds a special focus on the trafficking of cultural property to its assessment for the first time. This has finally allowed us to check the validity of the long-held but unsubstantiated claim that trafficking of cultural property comes third after trafficking of drugs and weapons.

As expected, the comparison is ludicrous. In short, the latest WCO figures show the following quantities seized for each category in 2016 and the number of seizures:

  • Drugs: 1 million kilos of cannabis, 180,773 kilos of cocaine, 99,000 kilos of khat, approx. 200,000 kilos of opiates, psychotropic and other substances. Total c.1.5 million kilos. Number of seizures: c.45,000.
  • Weapons & ammunition: number of pieces seized c.2.5 million. Number of seizures: c.4500.
  • Cultural property: 8343 objects seized, of which antiquities were c.6,600 (about 70% coins) Number of seizures: 146 (of which antiquities – mostly coins, seals and jewels – were c.70).

So in terms of the number of seizures across these three areas, drugs account for 90.6% of seizures, weapons and ammunition 9.1% and cultural property 0.3% (of which antiquities accounted for c.70 seizures or 0.14%). Although there is no direct correlation between the three areas in terms of volumes seized, summary totals give some indication of comparative scale: Drugs c.1.5 million kilos, weapons and ammunition c.2.5 million pieces, cultural property 8343 items.
As the WCO report also shows, trafficking in cigarettes (3.5 billion from 4768 seizures), counterfeit goods (c.200 million items from c.35,000 seizures) and environmental products (animal and plant parts, c.750,000 items from 2,225 seizures) are far greater problems than the comparatively miniscule volumes of cultural property noted.

Here are the rest of the report details in brief:

  • The map on page 12 showing no seizures at all in Western Europe other than Switzerland.
  • The report relies on Operation Pandora as evidence (Page 7), even though Europol has confirmed that nothing seized during the operation came from conflict zones.
  • Recognition that the bulk of the problem is in the Russian Federation, Eastern Europe and the Levant. (pages 7 and 29)
  • So few cases were reported to the WCO in 2016 that the sample ‘limits the validity of the generalizations drawn from apparent trends’. (Page 7)
  • The WCO admits that trends between 2015 and 2016 may be distorted by ‘increasing efficiency among customs authorities… in reality, levels of trafficking may be holding constant or even decreasing”. (Page 7) – In other words, as confirmed by Interpol’s FAQs on its Art Crime page, no one really has a clue about the size and scope of the problem. This exposes the commonly quoted but baseless claim that trafficked antiquities are the third most common form of trafficking and biggest source of terrorism financing after drugs and weapons. As Interpol state: “We do not possess any figures which would enable us to claim that trafficking in cultural property is the third or fourth most common form of trafficking, although this is frequently mentioned at international conferences and in the media. In fact, it is very difficult to gain an exact idea of how many items of cultural property are stolen throughout the world and it is unlikely that there will ever be any accurate statistics.”
  • Despite Antiquities accounting for half of the number of seizures, most of these seizures were of coins. (page 8)
  • The pie chart on page 8 is misleading as it refers to the number of seizures, not the volume or value of material seized. As the report goes on to state that the trend in smuggling is fewer, larger shipments, it is possible that when it comes to volume and value, the highest levels could actually be accounted for by seizures in other categories like statues and sculptures, which make up only 4.1% of the seizures by number. (Note that 6,670 items were confiscated in only 72 seizures, averaging just under 100 artefacts per seizure – Page 9)
  • This is further supported on page 8 by the acknowledgement that 69.2% of the 146 seizures from 2016 reported to the WCO involved ‘smaller antiquities, most frequently coins and historical items, including arms and armour’. It does not state how much arms and armour there would have been that constitutes antiquities rather than antiques.
  • The significant rise in seizures took place in the Middle East (Page 9) and most of these were contained within the Middle East (Page 29).
  • Most of the 8,343 items reported as seized in 2016 were ‘smaller antiquities such as coins, seals and jewels’. (Page 9)
  • The initial case study focuses on India, not the Middle East. Other case studies involve Ukraine/Poland (where 1000 of the items seized came during Operation Pandora and constituted spent cartridges and rusted gun stocks from WW2) and a general overview of Egyptian initiatives from 2005, but no specifics. They also highlight the seizure of objects from Syria at Roissy airport in France. However, this is the only case ever quoted in France and is also mentioned on page 100 of the recent Deloitte Report for the European Commission investigating the same issue. The authorities noted that there was no evidence of when they were removed from Syria, nor any evidence at all that they had been used to fund terrorism.

Check the figures and read the complete Illicit Trade Report 2016.

This article was first published in the IADAA newsletter. You can find previous issues and subscribe here to the IADAA newsletter.

To learn more about the IADAA, the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art go to the IADAA website.

And for prior articles on the subject browse our cultural property issues category.