Cultural Property Crime Thrived During The Covid-19 Pandemic: INTERPOL

October 19, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Cultural property crime continued unabated throughout the global Covid-19 pandemic, and in some cases even surged to new heights, according to INTERPOL’s 2020 Assessing Crimes Against Cultural Property survey findings.

In the Americas, the number of offences reported in 2020 was almost double when compared with those reported in 2019, and was significantly higher than in 2018. Attacks against cultural property, including physical attacks, destruction, and vandalism, also increased sharply in the Americas (by 38.61%) in 2020 from 2019, and is more than five times the number reported in 2018.

The report, which INTERPOL says is the first of its kind since Covid-19 and the first to be made publicly available, also found that at the international level, it is organized crime groups that are in charge of smuggling items across country borders through their networks.

“The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on criminals involved in the illicit traffic of cultural property but did not in any way diminish the demand for these items or the occurrence of such crimes. As countries implemented travel restrictions and other restrictive measures, criminals were forced to find other ways to steal, illegally excavate and smuggle cultural property,” Corrado Catesi, Coordinator of INTERPOL’s Works of Art unit said in a statement.

In total, 854,742 cultural property objects were seized globally in 2020, including numismatic items (coins, money, or medals), paintings, sculptures, archaeological items, and library materials. More than half these items were seized in Europe, underscoring the impact of police units specialized in cultural property crimes, which are present in most of the region’s countries.

Importantly, marked increases in illicit excavations were observed in Africa (32%), the Americas (187%), and, especially, Asia and South Pacific (3,812%) regions compared to 2019. This could be because archaeological and paleontological sites are, by nature, less protected and more exposed to illicit excavation.

On the other hand, Covid-19 restrictions also likely limited possibilities for criminals to steal objects from public collections. An estimated 95% of the world’s museums were forced to temporarily close their doors in 2020 to protect employees and visitors from the virus, according to the International Council of Museums.

Only a minority of cultural property crimes occurred in museums across all world regions, the INTERPOL survey shows. And all world regions except the Americas showed a lower proportion of such crimes occurring in museums in 2020 compared to the previous year. Still, globally, several high-profile cultural property crimes took place as police resources were dedicated to the pandemic.

One clear point that emerges from what INTERPOL has discovered about the main smuggling routes in the world is that every region is affected by the illicit traffic of cultural property, confirming the extreme transnational nature of these offences. Countries or continents could simultaneously be areas of origin, transit, and destination for stolen objects.

The three most common methods used by criminals to facilitate the illicit traffic of cultural property around the world are: hiding cultural goods in travelers’ luggage, transporting them with falsified documents, and hiding cultural property inside other objects. Law enforcement agencies indicated that their most common methods of detection of illegally exported cultural property are border controls, vehicle inspections, and searches.