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European countries are working together to tackle cultural property crime

2 February 2017

Europol’s announcement of 75 arrests and the recovery of more than 3,500 stolen works of art and cultural goods is undoubtedly good news, though also a sad sign of the extent of cultural property crime in Europe. It also seems likely that there will be more news to come of the results of Operation Pandora, given that more than 90 new investigations were begun as a result of the week of action it involved. To date only limited information as to the extent of the operation, the nature of the investigations, the arrests made and the items seized has been revealed.

Europol is responsible for coordinating the investigation and response to serious international crime and terrorism involving two or more EU member states. Where it falls within their remit, the agency has an increasing focus on international cultural property crime. This doubtless reflects the growing awareness of how it links in to organised crime, money laundering, and, arguably, terrorist financing. The discovery of two stolen Van Gogh oil paintings in the safe of a Camorra drug lord near Naples can leave no one in any doubt as to the value of art to criminals as a tool for moving and storing money. The pictures were rolled up in the safe as assets, not hanging on the wall to be admired.

As a result of such crossovers, it is likely that more European-wide operations will be seen in future. Operation Pandora is itself a follow-up on the earlier Operation Aureus which Europol coordinated in 2014. It is notable that the more recent operation has led to more than twice as many arrests and half as many items again being seized, which suggests that there remains much work to be done.

The global nature of the art and antiquities market, even at a relatively low value threshold, combined with the ease with which items can be anonymously advertised online to international audiences, means that this focus on the international illicit trade is likely to have a much greater impact than police work limited to national borders. The fact that a wider range of EU member states and others took part in the more recent operation is a welcome indication that the importance of tackling this kind of crime internationally is increasingly recognised.

The coordination work involved from Europol in making this happen must have been significant. The fight against both the trade in stolen art and antiquities requires strong cooperation between law enforcement agencies, customs officials, experts, and the art trade itself. This can involve sharing information, passing on leads, joint raids, or even undercover work. Without coordination of such activities it is much harder to identify the route to market of illicit material.

Frustrating as it is for observers that only limited news has been released to date, one can only hope that this is an indication that ongoing investigations into the illicit trade in cultural property are continuing, and that the lack of further information is to protect that work. If that is indeed the case then this is good news. All too often the seizure of stolen art works attracts significant publicity, neglecting the fact that without the slower-paced and less glamorous work involved in tackling the underlying criminal networks behind such events it is much harder to stem the illicit trade.

Given the apparent success of the week of action, in terms of seizures, arrests and leads, further international operations will doubtless follow. But perhaps different dates should be chosen. The last two operations have both now taken place between 17 and 23 November, and even the dimmest of criminals may now realise that this might be a good week to lie low in future…