I‘ll briefly present our Organisation and then develop the role of the Interpol General Secretariat in the fight against the illicit traffic in Cultural Property. Interpol is an intergovernmental organisation with 188 member countries. It is the second largest organisation after the U.N. in terms of membership. The main purpose of our Organisation, its “raison d’être” is to ensure and promote the international co-operation between law enforcement agencies in a wide range of crime areas. In each Interpol member country, the task of co-operation is assigned to the National Central Bureau, usually located in the country’s capital city.
Approximately 150 police officers from about 75 countries representing all the regions of the world are working at the Interpol General Secretariat, which is located in Lyons, France. The General Secretariat has no power to force a country to take action, or not to take action, in a specific police investigation. Instead, international investigations are conducted by the countries' national police forces.
This short introduction leads us already to the heart of the subject of this session, “The perspectives for transnational co-operation and global strategies” because enhancing cross-border police co-operation means creating the institutional framework, the technical infrastructure, and the practical tools to achieve this.
Which tools are at our disposal to efficiently fight against the illicit traffic in cultural property?
Since 1947, Interpol has invested a lot of efforts in the fight against the criminality related to cultural property and various tools have been developed by the General Secretariat to assist its member countries. As you will see, some of the tools are also available to the public.
For all operational activities by law enforcement agencies, the rapid, secure and reliable information exchange is crucial. Our worldwide telecommunication network enables to circulate information among all the member countries within a few minutes. The ever-increasing number of messages, in particular of those containing images (photographs, fingerprints) presented a new challenge to Interpol. Interpol’s response is a new telecommunications system based on the Internet technology, and which presents advantages in terms of speed and costs while maintaining the required high security standards. The system is called I-24/7 and meanwhile all member countries are connected. To give you an idea, approximately 11.2 million messages transited the system in 2008, i. e. more than 30, 000 messages on a daily basis. That is three times of the amount we had in 2003. I-24/7 does not only enable a quick exchange of information among the NCBs and the General Secretariat, it also enables to connect more national law enforcement officers from other agencies and even to connect not only single users, but entire local or national networks. It also gives access to a number of central databases including the works of art database.
Poster of the most wanted Works of Art
Every six months we publish a poster showing the six most wanted works of art. It is the only paper publication remaining for the stolen works of art. On average, 2 out of six objects represented are recovered. As an exception, the poster issued in June 2003 has been entirely dedicated to objects stolen in Iraq. We are currently working on the December 2009 edition.
The « ASF - works of art » computerised database
In 1995, the General Secretariat developed a computerised database for stolen works of art, including descriptions and photographs. This database has been made for Police Officers and is based on a visual description of works of art which is very easy to carry out. Mid of December 2009, the database contained 34 500 individual items.
The majority of items have been reported by:
- European countries (25, 398 or 73.5 %)
- America (4, 643 or 13.5 %)
- Middle East & North Africa (3, 017 or 8.8 %)
- Asia & South Pacific (1.276 or 3.7 %)
- Africa (166 or 0.5 %).
The Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, which is running the hugest cultural property database in terms of records are, of course, one of our privileged partners in this rather complex and ambitious endeavour.
Direct access to the database
Since January 1999, this database is available to all member countries by means of a specific computer program. In an effort to increase both the speed and the user friendliness of our tools, in November 2005, we launched the access to Interpol’s stolen art database through the new telecommunications system, and in September 2006, we added the French and Spanish versions. Since, the number of remote queries has tremendously increased reaching c. 7, 200 queries last year.
The CD-Rom/DVD « Interpol - Stolen Works of Art»
With a view to enable the private sector to have access to information on stolen art, in co-operation with a private French company, the General Secretariat started in 1999 to produce and distribute a CD-ROM on stolen works of art. In August 2006, we switched from the CD-ROM to the DVD technology for an increased storage capacity and, as a result, a higher quality of the photographs. In June 2009, we stopped the production and distribution of the DVD and replaced it by a more modern tool.
Online access to INTERPOL’s database via the secure web site
Following discussions and recommendations adopted by INTERPOL’s expert group on stolen cultural property (2008 and 2009) and the 7th international symposium on the theft of and illicit traffic in cultural property held in Lyon in June 2008, and after consultation with all INTERPOL member countries by means of circular letter (November 2008), the General Secretariat realized the online access to the database via its secure web site, operational since 17 August 2009. This is a further step in granting wide access to stolen art information thus providing the means to check items before buying them.
The database is one of the registers mentioned in the UNIDROIT Convention of 1995 in its article 4 § 4 enabling a potential buyer to perform due diligence. This initiative met an overwhelming positive response by the international public and the media.
Within the first four months, already more than 1 000 users from 64 countries have been granted access rights and over 2,900 searches have been conducted. The users include law enforcement officials, representatives of state authorities, ministries of culture, churches, museums, non governmental organizations, experts, scholars, but also art trade professionals and private collectors. It is a means to enable them take their responsibilities, and it would be difficult for a possessor of a stolen item recorded in the database to claim that he acted in good faith if he failed to make a check (free of charge).
In July 2000, the General Secretariat opened an INTERNET site for the works of art. This site, publicly accessible, contains information on:
- Interpol meetings and conferences, recommendations adopted
- Specific alerts in the event of important thefts (e. g. the “Saliera” from Museum in Vienna, May 2003 and its recovery 3 years later)
- Poster of the most recent thefts of works of art
- Items found by Police Officers who are trying to trace the owners
- Information on online access to database
- Frequently asked questions.
Various examples demonstrate the successful use of database information. They also illustrate the necessity to keep the information as long as possible, as well as the advantages of timely notification. We have experience of cases where the stolen items were proposed for sale short time after the theft occurred. In other cases, it took decades before the objects were detected, and the database was the only remaining means allowing to identify the stolen property and to enable its restitution and the arrest of the offenders.
Co-operation with other international organisations
INTERPOL signed Memoranda of Understanding with the WCO (World Customs Organization) in 1998, with the UNESCO in 1999 and with ICOM in April 2000. Since a couple of years, the General Secretariat has actively participated in regional workshops organised by UNESCO and ICOM (International Council of Museums), where Police Officers, customs and museum curators have been invited.
We are glad to count on the strong support by the UNESCO and ICOM, which regularly send representatives to join Interpol’s Experts Group on Cultural Property created in 2003. And we acknowledge the products put at the disposal of the international law enforcement community by the UNESCO, such as
- the cultural heritage laws database and
- the list of experts for Iraqi cultural heritage.
With the substantial support of a German archaeologist, also included in UNESCO’s list of experts, two significant cultural property items from Iraq have been secured, one has already been returned to Iraq earlier this year.
Sales of cultural property over the Internet
No doubt, internet platforms have become a privileged channel for the sale of all kinds of commodities including cultural property. As we all know, the sales take place rapidly with clients from all over the world, in an almost uncontrolled environment. The single items are not necessarily always very significant, but the whole traffic causes serious damage. We have therefore to take into account the new trafficking methods and develop an appropriate counter-strategy.
This problem has already been in the focus of INTERPOL since several years, had been debated during expert group meetings and international conferences, and one of the results was the common letter by INTERPOL, UNESCO and ICOM with basic recommendations to follow, which was distributed to their respective membership by each of the Organizations (UNESCO, ICOM, INTERPOL).
Some countries took up the challenge and developed a strategy, which may serve as an example for good practice. Following a 3 months pilot phase conducted in 2008, the Swiss Federal Office of Culture signed a Memorandum of Understanding with eBAY Switzerland aiming at limiting the sales of archaeological items. The company agreed to allow on their platform only the offers of archaeological pieces accompanied by documents delivered by competent domestic or foreign authorities and proving their legal provenance. The respect of this principle is strictly controlled and preventive information measures are planned with a view to raising public awareness related to the illicit trafficking in archaeological items.
This agreement marks a clear shifting of responsibility to the platforms, which in the past camped on the position that they only provided the technical means for the buyer and the seller to conclude their transaction, thus rejecting any own responsibility. The experience made so far is very encouraging as the offers for sale of archaeological items dropped drastically to a point where they became just insignificant. Similar agreements have been concluded by Austrian and German authorities with eBAY platforms in their countries, and the results are comparable.
To summarize, co-operation in the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural property, if we want it to be effective, should be strengthened at all levels:
- domestically with all involved agencies within the law enforcement area
- with all the other institutions, organizations and cultural and professional bodies affected by theft or illicit trafficking
- internationally with all countries – INTERPOL provides you with the tools
- by sharing the maximum of theft information and granting the widest possible access to it and
- no longer enable hiding behind the presumption of good faith for acquisitions of significant cultural property items reported stolen and for which the data are publicly accessible.