Illicit trafficking in cultural goods is a large problem around the world, even though only separate precedents get wide public attention. The volumes of this type of crime are enormous both in monetary and historic value. Our new author, attorney-at-law Marta Suárez-Mansilla talks about illicit trafficking of cultural goods as a form of organized crime.

*Intro by


Marta Suárez-Mansilla

Attorney at Law (

PhD Researcher at the UNED

Illicit trafficking of cultural goods: a new form of organized crime?

In the past few years, the illicit trafficking of cultural goods has been seriously related to the funding of terrorism. Although the connection of antiquities looting with war conflicts is not new, the recent involvement of this unlawful activity with the support of terrorist groups has opened a line of action unknown until now. However, it is necessary to assess the content of the news and the dissemination of facts made by the media to ascertain to what extent this statement is true.

We all have seen with much pain the destruction of several World Heritage sites as Palmira, Hatra, Ninive, Nimrod or Timbuktu that jihadists made when they declared their Caliphate. Conflicts in the Middle East area seemed to take place one after the other with no truce. Since the Gulf War back in the ’90s, this region has suffered from multiple confrontations and political instability that helped to boost one of the oldest black markets worldwide: the one related to cultural goods. Notwithstanding that the seizure and looting of antiquities have not always been a crime, nowadays, the international acknowledge of the importance of culture and the enrichment of the whole world thanks to the heritage that talks upon our shared past, would not allow these activities. In fact, not only the societies but also the legal systems have become aware of the need for protecting the cultural property for future generations. This context of awareness, fostered above all after the 1970 Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property, had an impact on the regulations that many of the countries of the area enacted afterwards. The Middle East region is one of the culturally richest regions of the world and tried to protect their wealth with a regulation thought to preserve the antiquities and keep the cultural goods within their borders. However, the legal system has hardly effect when the territory is flooded with conflicts, and the population seeks alternative ways of survival. As a consequence, the whole area is struck with these inherited practices that worryingly spread when terrorism hits more roughly.

Along with the destruction of the archaeological sites that DAESH broadcast to get attention, satellite images have recorded the rise of the looting activities, with a massive number of pits in the soil which made us think about the smuggling of cultural good without precedents. Media started to link these facts to the direct intervention of DAESH in the area. The terrorist group was made responsible for this illicit action that, as many journals said, was the worse ever after the II World War. Furthermore, scholars and journalists stated that the group took advantage of the looting of antiquities to fund themselves. They ended up institutionalising these old practices of unearthing valuable objects, by establishing a ministry division devoted to the grant of licences of excavation and collecting taxes calculated on a percentage of the appraisal price of the artefacts recovered. They are thought to be behind the climb of looting in the area and to straightly trade with the antiquities for funding.

It is true that terrorists used the destruction of monuments as a stage with propaganda purposes and also had the goal of creating a global perception of their power, with selected actions that they disseminated worldwide. Some of these actions luckily affected replicas and fakes[1]. In other cases, they were real. The whole world was aware of the risk of Syrian and Iraqi archaeological pieces reaching the west antiquities market, as it also happened during the Iraq War in 2003 when objects soon popped in auction houses and travelled to western countries[2].

Nevertheless, art market professionals remark the fact that there have only been a few cases related to pieces coming from Syria or Iraq since DAESH declared its Caliphate, and most of them were small pieces like coins or pottery figures. The amount of seized artefacts does not match the expectation, given the spread-out of looting since terrorists occupied the area. This raises many questions: are terrorists really funding themselves with the illicit trade of antiquities? Are they behind the massive looting? How do they make money if the pieces do not reach the market? Are they taking advantage of taxes and granting licenses for a price?

News around the world was leaking little by little, informing about the DAESH political system, the administrative structure and the management rules they tried to improve over the population and the territory. The purpose of the group was to establish a steady government, and they, in fact, adopted an institutional organisation with ministries, divisions and departments that regularly worked for a few years. In this vision, some wonder whether DAESH would commit human resources and funds to sustain a structure devoted to the looting and direct sale of artefacts.However, a raid that took place in May 2015 by the US intelligence and ended up with a whole unit of the group seemed to point otherwise. They found many documents related to the antiquities division established by DAESH that members of the US operation interpreted as undoubted evidence of their involvement in the illicit trafficking of Syrian and Iraqi cultural goods[3].

A recent case open in Spain tries to proof that terrorists raised funds through looting[4]. It is about an antique dealer from Barcelona that traded with antiquities taken from Lybia in a period when the terrorists occupied the country. These pieces could only come out of the place by that time, joining the usual routes traffickers use to transport all kind of merchandise, crossing several countries to finally reach the European antique market. The artefacts seized during the Spanish police operation seemed to have left Lybia very recently. Pieces arrived in Spain and some other European countries very fast. The police investigation followed the traces of the money and the middle people involved in an attempt to demonstrate the straight connection between the illicit trade and the funding of the terrorist group. The case is now pending trial on the grounds of helping organised terrorist crime, and not just for illicit trafficking of cultural goods.

This investigation is part of a broader operation conducted in Europe that targets some antique dealers with the suspicion of being involved in unlawful activities regarding pieces from Syria, Iraq, Lybia and other places of the occupied areas. Pieces are also said to be stopped at the customs of the UK and other European countries. In addition, the impact of facebook trade groups and other online networks should not be underestimated. Actually, there are several facebook groups under surveillance because they openly offer smuggled artefacts for sale, beautiful pieces unearthed from Syria or Iraq. On the other hand, 70% of the objects that finally reach the western markets are fakes[5].

All this information creates a state of uncertainty hard to clarify. Yet, a recent analysis of ISIS’ documentation found after the group abandoned some recovered cities points out that DAESH aimed to create a government and that they were mainly getting funds from a complex and well-articulated tax system. So, though it is still soon to draw definitive conclusions, it is sensible to think that the granting of licences of excavation in exchange for a tax (percentage of the value of the objects found) was the standard way of financing, instead of being in charge of a whole trade structure, which would have required to dedicate people and means to maintain control and money flows. It seems more likely that DAESH took advantage of an old practice largely sustained in the place and made out of it a source of income by an authorisation mechanism included in its antiquities division. Until some of the investigation still ongoing across Europe demonstrates that the terrorist group is straightly connected for the illicit trafficking, data available until now are not enough to prove so.

What is clear, however, it is the intimate connection of illicit trafficking of cultural assets and the conflict situations. The political instability underlying any kind of conflict feeds and boost unlawful practices, and in places where looting was so common since so long ago, this is the perfect combination of factors to definitively encourage smugglers and traffickers to intensify their activity. One should bear in mind that, according to UNESCO, illicit trafficking of cultural goods is one of “the most persistent illegal trades in the world” alongside arms and drugs[6]. Fortunately, the international community is aware of the damaging effects derived from cultural looting and destruction. New times have come to change game rules in what antiquities trade concerns. Society is no longer willing to stand the extension of these awful actions without major consequences. So, some shy steps forward show the commitment to cut down the illegal market. For instance, the EU has enacted the first Regulation focused on the import of cultural goods procedure to ban the entry of pieces coming from conflict zones. Also, it is remarkable the recent approach that addresses this problem as a way of organised crime, which should bring more severe convictions and discourage criminals. This progress gives an idea of how culture is deemed today and how its concept has changed over time. Cultural heritage is the witness of our past, the legacy of what we have been to be where we are now. We all share it, and we all can learn from it. We must protect it and keep it.


[6]UNESCO (2011) The fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural objects: The 1970 Convention: Past andFuture. Information Kit. Division of Public Information and the Culture Sector of UNESCO, Paris.


Preview image: Palmyra - تدمر _ Monumental arch on the Grand Colonnade-by Juan Llanos-via Flickr 

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