Art Market
75 Members of Art Trafficking Ring Arrested in Major Bust
Photo: guardiacivil.es

Photo: guardiacivil.es

On Sunday, Spain’s Interior Ministry announced the arrest of 75 people across Europe for trafficking in stolen art and artifacts. Cypriot and Spanish police led the pan-European investigation, which involved 18 countries and recovered some 3,561 artifacts, according to a EUROPOL statement.

Code-named “Pandora,” the wide reaching operation investigated 48,588 persons and searched 29,340 vehicles and 50 ships. Authorities stated that the operation’s intent “was to dismantle criminal networks involved in cultural theft and exploitation, and identify potential links to other criminal activities” with a particular focus on objects coming from “conflict countries.” An additional 92 lines of criminal inquiry have been initiated as a result of Pandora. Still, details of the operation remain unknown, including its impact on the art trade and criminal enterprise.

The operation and arrests took place between October and November of last year but only became public recently. There is scant information on the suspects, and a full accounting of the objects recovered has yet to be released. However, NPR has reported that those charged are members of a criminal gang who transported and sold illicitly acquired art and artifacts.

Some 500 pieces of art were found in Murcia, a city in southeastern Spain. Three years ago, several objects were stolen from Murcia’s archaeological museum; 19 of the recovered artifacts are linked to that heist. EUROPOL’s initial release also highlighted the Greek police’s seizure of an Ottoman tombstone, a post-Byzantine icon showing Saint George, and two Byzantine artifacts.

Interpol, UNESCO, and the World Customs Organization also participated in Operation Pandora. The organizations provided logistical support and marshalled a large database of looted antiquities through which authorities were able to check the provenance of recovered goods.

Authorities have said that nearly 50,000 people were searched as part of the effort to prevent the illicit trafficking of goods. Details of the searches and their results have yet to be released by the agencies involved—nor have the agencies disclosed what positions those arrested held within organized crime groups or what specific charges the traffickers face. Thus, it will be some time before the real impact of this investigation can be accurately assessed.

As has been previously reported, the trade of antiquities from countries that are embroiled in conflict, such as Syria, has been linked to both conventional criminal networks and terrorist groups such as ISIS. Since ISIS retook control of the ancient city of Palmyra in December, satellite footage has emerged of further undeterred destruction undertaken by the group, despite the first ever successful prosecution for war crimes at the international criminal court occurring last year.

The extent to which ISIS receives significant funding from the looted antiquity trade remains a topic of fierce debate. The terrorist group was not mentioned as a specific target of Operation Pandora. Recently, the international community has appeared to grow more willing to robustly address the problem of looting, especially for objects traced to conflict zones around the world.

Though the United States was not involved in Pandora, the country recently passed the “Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act.” The act provides a framework for crafting a more efficient federal response to cultural property threatened by global conflict and disasters. Among other provisions, it allows the U.S. to provide safe harbor to Syrian cultural objects in danger. The act also established an import ban on Syrian cultural artifacts illegally excavated after the start of the country’s civil war.

Such laws and arrests like those produced by Operation Pandora are meant to both weaken existing trafficking networks and deter new networks from forming. While Pandora and other efforts may hamper criminals responsible for art trafficking and theft within Europe, it remains unclear if its impact will be felt in the unnamed conflict countries from which the objects were looted.


—Isaac Kaplan