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Fighting the Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property


The Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property Throughout the World

Looting archaeological sites, stealing artworks from museums and ethnological objects from rural areas have become frequent events the world over. Every day in countries in the southern hemisphere cases of looting of archaeological sites or thefts of artworks are reported either by museum professionals or by villagers who are shocked by the sudden disappearance of an object that was full of religious significance and formed part of their cultural environment. From east to west in northern hemisphere countries, in spite of legislation protecting national heritage, the looting of archaeological sites continues, as well as the theft of artworks from museums, from all kinds of historical monuments, castles, public places, and places of worship.

These abominable acts are endangering our heritage, endangering all the material and cultural trace left by mankind since our earliest beginnings. Faced with this threat, cultural and police institutions such as ICOM, UNESCO and INTERPOL are leading an active fight against the dramatic loss caused by the looting of cultural property. Important actions are already under way, but the institutions are constantly on the look out for suitable new measures to implement.

Making the public and the authorities more aware of the problem of looting and the traffic it feeds, has become a major goal today. But the question is how to reach this goal. Cultural institutions, museums, research bodies and museum professionals have a leading role to play: in each country town and village, it is they who must inform people, alerting them to the problem of looting and trafficking and getting them to react against it.

The looting of cultural property - a worldwide phenomenon

In the history of mankind, the looting and trading of cultural property is nothing new. It was denounced in one of the oldest legal documents in Egypt at the time of the pharaohs, in the Amherst Papyrus dating from 1134 BC (1). In Western Europe, it was not long before royal tombs were besieged by treasure hunters. In Latin America, where ancient civilisations such as the Mayas and the Zapotecs developed, civilisations that can be compared with those of Egypt, the traditional term "collector" is always understood to form a duo with "looter" (2).

The reason the phenomenon is extremely worrying today is the extent to which it has grown over the last few decades. Numerous cases of archaeological sites being looted have been reported in both the southern and northern hemispheres. In West Africa, illicit excavations on the Thial site in Mali are a prime example (3).
In Europe, Italy with its great archaeological potential is one of the continent's most badly affected countries as far as illicit excavation is concerned. Every year hundreds of Etruscan tombs are plundered by "Tombaroli" looters who use an iron bar or "spiedo" to test and open up the ground (4). Looting is not unknown on the rest of the continent. In 1992, archaeological items of great value, two marble tombstones and the capital of a column were illicitly removed from a site in Anavarza in Turkey (5).
In Asia, apart from the looting of Khmer artworks from Angkor in Cambodia, which is well-known (6), there is the case of China. According to David Murphy, who between 1989 and 1990 carried out research on the looting of archaeological sites in China, about 40,000 ancient tombs have been excavated illicitly (7). In Latin America, the remains of the Maya civilisation have also fallen prey to treasure hunters.

Thefts of artworks from museums have been increasing on a world scale. They reached such proportions that in 1994 the Secretary General of INTERPOL launched "A Call for Action" (8). There are no international statistical studies available on the question. However, according to the lists of objects itemised by INTERPOL, for instance those drawn up between 1989 and 1993, thousands of objects including paintings, statuettes made of wood, stone, terracotta or metal, as well as religious artworks and ancient texts were stolen from museums, sometimes during exhibitions.
In November 1992, seventeen ancient manuscripts in Arabic were taken from a public library in Amasya Beyazit in Turkey (9).
In September 1992, thieves stole several icons and a Bible from a church in Siatista in Greece (10). An estimated three hundred and eighty-five icons were stolen from Bulgaria during the same period.
A catalogue several hundred pages long entitled Le catalogue des vols de la sculpture religieuse protégée au titre des monuments historiques (Thefts of listed religious sculpture from Historic Monuments) and published in 1993 by the French Ministry of the Interior and the Heritage Department gives an idea of the scale of thefts from churches in France alone.
In January 1993, seventeen bronze statuettes were stolen from the Karachi National Museum in Pakistan. In September 1993, several bronze heads and others in terracotta were taken from Nigeria's Ile-Ife National Museum. The same year during an exhibition in Rome, an art nouveau vase (1898-1900) disappeared. Entitled "Campignons" it was a work by Emile Gallé and belonged to the Kunstmuseum in Düsseldorf Im Ehrnhof in Germany. Lastly, an estimated 4,000 items were stolen from Iraqi museums during the Gulf War (11).

Causes of theft and looting

A combination of determining factors explains why the looting of archaeological sites and the theft of cultural property has been intensifying. The last two decades have seen an unprecedented growth in the art market. This has now become an active sector of the economy in which investors try to make large profits in a short space of time.

An ever increasing demand by the countries that buy exacerbates the situation, with disastrous consequences for cultural heritage. The higher the demand, the more the suppliers of raw material, the looters and middlemen of all types hasten to meet the needs; and when an object is considered rare, market speculation is fierce.

Moreover, the economic climate in poor countries has also reinforced the situation. Political instability in many countries, the fact that borders are easy to cross, and the absence of national legislation, or the lack of resources to enforce it when there is any, clear the way for looting, all to the detriment of any will to safeguard national heritage.

The illicit traffic of artworks - a crime against human heritage

Any artwork, whether it is in essence popular or artistic, is the surest testimony to the history of a people or a civilisation. It is the stamp left by mankind in space and time. In this sense it is an integral part of a country's heritage. The remains of ancient civilisations that archaeological excavations bring to light testify to the history of humanity in fields as varied as technical development, social life, or religious practices, which often involve remarkable artistic creativity. Thanks to them we can uncover the history of peoples who have disappeared, whether they have left written documents or not.
However, as far as scientific research is concerned, an artwork can only supply valid information about the past of the people who produced it if it is studied in situ, that is to say in its archaeological or ethnological context. Particularly in Africa, where ancient societies barely wrote, or only very little, it is vital to have access to material culture so as to be able to write the history of these societies (12).
As a result, any object that is moved without the necessary precautions being taken, or without any preliminary study of the environment in which it was kept, loses all its scientific value and becomes dead evidence. It cannot supply information on its own history or that of mankind.
Today, researchers are faced with considerable problems posed by statuettes known as Kissi. These were produced in a limited area around the edge of the Niger basin in Guinea and present-day Sierra Leone. More than four hundred of these statuettes are scattered throughout the world and yet not one of them has ever been found in its archaeological context. Because of this they remain unintelligible to historians (13). In the same way, a great many damascene swords looted at the turn of the century from the Luristan necropolises in Iran now enrich numerous public and private collections in Europe, but have no specific archaeological interest (14).
Thus the looting of cultural, archaeological and ethnological property is tantamount to a crime against human heritage. It destroys evidence from the past, deprives future generations of the fundamental components of heritage and so erases the memory of ancient civilisations.

The fight against illicit traffic - a priority for preserving world heritage

The fight against all forms of looting of cultural property has now become a resolution that is publicly upheld by international cultural institutions, particularly ICOM, UNESCO and INTERPOL. These institutions work closely together on action programmes to support the fight. Their main objective is to promote safeguarding world heritage, which lives on as the memory of our past.

Different means of protection can be envisaged for fighting against the looting and illicit traffic of cultural property. Developing museums as conservation places for public cultural property, reinforcing already existing security systems in museums, and carrying out systematic inventorying of the collections in each museum are among the preventive measures recommended by international institutions responsible for heritage management and the flow of artworks throughout the world. To this end their actions focus on three major areas: training museum professionals, making the authorities more aware of the problems of conserving national heritage, and also now the priority area of heightening public awareness so that people in both town and country become highly mobilised against acts of vandalism in their cultural environment.

In 1970, in the context of protecting world heritage, UNESCO adopted a Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The goal was to reinforce international solidarity in the fight against the traffic of cultural property by setting up a system of co-operation between States, and ethical standards on the movement of cultural property. This means that any State Party whose heritage is endangered by looting of archaeological or ethnographic objects can call upon the States concerned. The States Parties are committed to participating in all concerted international operations for applying the necessary measures.
By 1996, eighty-six countries had ratified the UNESCO Convention. They have recently been joined by France, which along with the United States is the only major art market country to have done so. Furthermore, the United States has applied a benefical decree for countries that have fallen victim to the theft and looting of a specific part of their heritage: bilateral agreements have been signed with Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru, Salvador and Mali (1994). These specific agreements aim to forbid the import into America of any objects from particular archaeological sites in the countries concerned.

These measures are very effective when it comes to the ongoing fight against the illicit traffic of cultural property. It is now a matter of urgency that the countries that have not yet signed the UNESCO Convention, particularly the major art market countries, do so.
The same goes for the UNIDROIT Convention, which was adopted in June 1995 on the initiative of the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law based in Rome. The convention aims to remedy some of the weaknesses in the UNESCO Convention. It takes up the principle of "due diligence" which requires that anyone acquiring an object has to prove they acted in good faith.

Lastly, there is ICOM's Code of Ethics, which was adopted in 1986, and to which each museum professional is committed. The code is totally unambiguous with its strict rules on acquiring and transferring collections, and on personal responsibilities as regards collections, colleagues, and the profession. It is also a tool for fighting against the illicit traffic of cultural property.

Today considerable progress has been made as concerns national and international legislation to combat looting and trafficking of cultural property, and public officials in countries from north to south are increasingly aware of the problem. This testifies to a strengthening of the will to safeguard the heritage. However, for greater results in the years to come, concrete actions must also be undertaken to increase awareness and mobilise public opinion against illicit traffic as was the case with ivory and furs. In this regard, the museums that wish to play an exemplary role "in the service of society and of its development" in accordance with ICOM's definition, must serve as relays for the diffusion of information on this issue, with the museum professionals the primary vectors of information.


(1) PIERRON Véronique, "L'UNESCO et la trafic des biens culturels", Archéologia, issue number 284 1992, p.40. VERCOUTTER Jean, A la recherche de l'Egypte oubliée, Gallimard, collection "Découvertes Gallimard", 1986.

(2) BRENT Michel, "Pillaging Archeological sites", International criminal police review n 448/449, May-June / July- August, 1994, p.33.

(3) SIDIBE Samuel, "Mali's Cultural Heritage : Combating plundering", International criminal police review n 448/449, May-June / July- August, 1994, p 6.

(4) PIERRON Véronique, "L'UNESCO et la trafic des biens culturels", Archéologia, issue number 284, November,1992, p.42.

(5) Note objets volés / Stolen objects, Turquie, file number : 13649 / 93, OIPC (International criminal police organization), Lyon (S.G.).

(6) One hundred missing objects. Looting in Angkor, New edition, ICOM-EFEO, Paris 1997.

(7) "Art pirates, Archaeology: The treasures of China's ancient tombs are being smuggled out of the country", in Newsweek, The International Newsmagazine, August 22, 1994, p. 36.

(8) KENDALL R.E., "A call for action", in the editorial issue number 448 / 449 of the International criminal police review n 448/449, May-June / July- August, 1994, which is devoted to the looting of cultural property worlwide.

(9) Note objets volés / Stolen objects, Turquie, file number : 13649 / 93, OIPC (International criminal police organization), Lyon (S.G.)

(10) Note objets volés / Stolen objects, Grèce, file number : 144705 / 92, OIPC (International criminal police organization), Lyon (S.G.)

(11) ALBERGE Dalya, "Pst! Un bas-relief sumerien, ça vous intéresse", Courrier international, n 324 du 16 au 22 Janvier 1997; see also PIERRON Véronique, "L'UNESCO et le trafic des biens culturels", Archéologia, issue number 284, November 1992, p. 42.

(12) DEVISSE Jean, "An authentic picture", UNESCO Courrier, May 1994, pp.39-41.

(13) KOUNDOUNO Bruno, "La statuaire de pierre dite Kissi", in DEVISSE Jean (eds), Vallées du Niger, édition Réunion de Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1993, pp. 464-475.

(14) FRANCE-LANORD Albert, "Le fer en Iran au premier millénaire avant Jésus-Christ, Revue d'histoire des mines et de la métallurgie, tome I, n 1, pp.76-126.

Updated: 11 July 2005