An international investigation that led to the indictment of the former director of the museum of the louvre has uncovered the magnitude of international art smuggling, which has benefited from the instability in middle East for years, according to specialists consulted by AFP.
Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt…: the list of looted countries grew as the Arab Spring spread.
Archaeological sites in those countries are “real supermarkets to certain open”a phenomenon that can also be found in certain places of Latin America Y Africaaccording to michelle vincentprofessor of Oriental Archeology at the University of Poitiers (centre) and an expert in the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural property.
“This trafficking, which arose with clandestine excavations and was aggravated by poverty, has been growing since the Arab Spring of 2011. It cannot be hidden. And it feeds both petty criminals and great international criminality”explains this specialist.
“The smuggling of works of art is connected to drug trafficking and arms trafficking” and it serves, like them, for money laundering, he adds.
The overall amount is “impossible to assess”but could reach “tens, if not hundreds of millions” of dollars.
“The legal art market represents an annual turnover of about US$63 billion, and traffickers are convinced that there is a lot of money at stake”adds Michel, who has trained police specialists or legal experts for years.
“A general awareness and a concerted interdisciplinary struggle is necessary”Add.
The epidemic of COVID-19which brutally curbed the economy in the vast majority of countries, aggravated the situation.
In Egypt, where “A large number of counterfeits circulate, we went from 1,500 clandestine deposits per year to 8,960 in 2020”coinciding with the first confinement, indicates Vincent Michel.
“As in Mexico, the looted works were found in tombs, so their conversational status is perfect, thanks to the arid climate”Explain.
According to Xavier DelestreRegional Curator of Archeology in the South-East of France, “the looting of archaeological sites at the local level has worsened” and has also increased the arrival of “cultural goods from abroad (Africa and Latin America in particular)”.
It is particularly about “works of art of great value that arrive at free ports and then resurface with a false history to end up on the legal market”indicates.
There is also the case of “objects of inferior value that circulate massively, from social networks, to online sales sites”.
An exhibition and an international colloquium on the subject will be organized in the French city of Marseille (southeast) before the end of this year.
The smugglers demonstrate “an incredible ingenuity to launder stolen objects, by mixing false and true information” either “inventing a pedigree (history), or fabricating forged documents or invoices of illicit origin. Some establishments even issue false UNESCO certificates”Michel specifies.
Once it returns to the legal market, “a caught object” it is “almost undetectable”.
The Internet also aggravated the phenomenon due to the “anonymity” and of the “multiplication of sales sites”which show “the innumerable ways to launder money” Y “the faculty of adaptation” of the traffickers, according to this expert.
An American project Athar (traffic of antiquities and research on the anthropology of heritage) made it possible to identify “some 95 Facebook groups specializing in illicit trafficking, involving some two million people in the Middle East, 36% of whom come from conflict zones and 44% from border areas”.