Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Antiquities

Participants at the "Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Antiquities" program in Ottawa.

What do law enforcement agents and art conservationists have in common? Although these groups of professionals may seem like polar opposites, there is an ongoing global threat whose resolution depends greatly upon collaboration between the two: the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

This week, law enforcement representatives and museum and gallery staff from the United States and Canada gathered in Ottawa to share knowledge, best practices, and experiences.

Cultural property is a broad category that may include art, fossils, historical objects, or other treasures. Theft, smuggling, and unauthorized sale of cultural property are widespread. In fact, said a U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officer, trafficked cultural property is so valuable that some transnational criminal enterprises use the objects as currency.

Enter law enforcement agents who work to stop smugglers and/or smuggled objects from illegally crossing national borders. Conservationists then authenticate smuggled property and ensure proper handling and packaging of the items so they won’t be damaged in custody. Both sides add their expertise to judge whether there are grounds to charge a smuggler under trafficking laws.

Case studies presented at the workshop from both American and Canadian perspectives educated the audience on different ways each nation deals with this international issue. Attendees were also treated to a special look at the Italian strategy for countering cultural property smuggling. The Police Attaché to the Italian Embassy in Canada, Lieutenant Colonel Giorgio Tommaseo (Carabinieri), gave the presentation.

Other featured speakers included the former Head of Conservation at the Smithsonian Institution, Harriet Beaubien; HSI Cultural Property, Art & Antiquities (CPAA) Agent Douglas Bort; Canadian Border Services Agency’s (CBSA) Phillip Gore; and many more.

The core theme that emerged from the conference was clearly “partnership.” Whether it be between law enforcement and conservation experts, or American and Canadian officials, collaboration and coordination are the only truly effective ways to ensure the preservation of humanity’s rich cultural heritage for future generations to discover.