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Cultural property crime thrives during pandemic says INTERPOL survey

 

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

The first such report compiled since the onset of the pandemic – and the first made publicly available – the survey leverages information supplied by 72 INTERPOL member countries on cultural property crimes, arrests and trafficking routes in 2020. The consolidated intelligence allows INTERPOL to analyse and compare emerging trends around the world.

Seized

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 of these items – 567,465 objects – 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.

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

Restrictions

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

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 compared to the previous year.

Resources

Several high-profile cultural property crimes nevertheless occurred as police resources were dedicated to the pandemic, such as the theft of a Van Gogh painting from the Singer Laren museum in Amsterdam and the theft of three masterpieces from Christ Church College in Oxford.

“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,” said Corrado Catesi, Coordinator of INTERPOL’s Works of Art unit.

‘As countries implemented travel restrictions and other restrictive measures, criminals were forced to find other ways to steal, illegally excavate and smuggle cultural property.’