A Unesco conference has drawn attention to the need for the art market to fight trafficking in cultural goods.
“Long-necked” Mbumba (Tsogho, Gabon, 19th century, h. 38.5 cm/15.15 in) restituted to the musée du quai Branly by the Bernard Dulon gallery. Abbot Walker had given it to the musée du Trocadéro in 1934.
© Courtesy Galerie Bernard Dulon, Photo Hughes Dubois
Long neglected, provenance research is emphatically in fashion. After a task force report and the symposium organized by the Institut national de l'histoire de l'art (INHA), the Sales Council and Drouot, Unesco held a conference on December 5 in partnership with Drouot, giving national officials an opportunity to forge closer ties with the art market.
Colonel Hubert Percie du Sert, head of the Office central de lutte contre le trafic des biens culturels (Central Office for the Fight Against Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Goods, OCBC), recalled its basic mission. “The lack of vigilance necessarily makes criminal and terrorist organizations accomplices,” he said, stressing the trade’s devastating impact on “interstate relations”, a transparent allusion to the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s acquisitions of Egyptian antiquities. He also said that trafficking in cultural goods is “the world’s third-largest illicit trade behind arms and drugs,” a myth unfortunately recently taken up by Unesco. Curiously, while its director for culture formally closed the session, Unesco itself did not take part in the debates.
Participants pleaded for a return to reality. Archaeologist Vincent Michel said art trafficking “is very hard to evaluate.” Even if the amount were “a few hundred million euros, that would still only be a small fraction of the tens of billions” changing hands on the art market. “The enemy must not be mistaken,” he said, preferring to ask professionals to “be aware.”
Many participants stressed the need for international standardization. Colonel Percie du Sert mentioned a European plan put forward by France’s Ministry of Culture. The general inspector of Dutch heritage, Marja van Heese, was not reassuring. She said that art market regulation in her country “was sufficient”—without knowing the details and denying that the Netherlands, with Belgium, is Europe’s trafficking hub, due to its lax legislation.
Gianpetro Romano, head of the Carabinieri in charge of heritage in Italy, said it was impossible to put a number on art trafficking because inventories of looted sites “are fragmented” and it is “very hard to assess the value of” fraudulent goods. In 2022, Italy recorded 22,500 of them, including 1,300 fakes worth an estimated €22M. At the same time, the OCBC seized €10M in criminal assets. From 2014 to 2021, Interpol recorded nearly 10,000 infractions, half of them in Europe. While this is only a partial view because the figures come from just 74 of Interpol’s nearly 200 member states, the data give a more realistic idea of the scale of a trade that pales in comparison with trafficking in drugs, arms, human beings and counterfeit goods. “It’s hard to put a figure on it,” says African heritage specialist Fallo Baba Keita, recalling that on his continent, “many museums don’t keep statistics” of objects that have disappeared from their collections. “Just 3% of the objects stolen in Africa can be found in international databases.” He recalled that radical Islamists looted or burned 4,000 manuscripts in Timbuktu and the United States returned 900 seized objects to Mali in December 2021.