In Brief

18,000 Illegally Trafficked Cultural Goods Seized in an International Crackdown

Operation Pandora III, carried out by the Spanish Civil Guard, Europol, Interpol, and the World Customs Organization, included a special focus on illicit online trafficking. 59 individuals were arrested in the operation.

18,000 illegally trafficked cultural goods seized in operation Pandora III (courtesy Europol)

Police authorities from 29 countries joined forces to launch an operation that seized more than 18,000 illegally trafficked cultural goods including archaeological items, furniture, coins, paintings, musical instruments, and sculptures. The joint forces arrested 59 individuals in the operation.

The grand-scale operation, code-named Pandora III, was coordinated by the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) and supported by The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), Interpol, and the World Customs Organization (WCO). Since October 2018, these authorities assigned thousands of Police and Customs officers to the investigation, which included a special focus on illicit online trafficking of cultural goods. Forces on the ground inspected auction houses, art galleries, museums, ports, airports, border crossing points, and private houses.

The great majority of the objects seized during the operation were from European countries, aside from 30 objects that originated in Colombia, Egypt, Iraq, and Morocco.

According to the Europol, about 10,000 archaeological artifacts were seized in a single successful investigation carried out by the Spanish Civil Guard. The Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Carabinieri TPC) sized 91 ceramic objects and 109 ancient coins found in private property and mail centers. Polish Police captured  419 more objects in a single investigation. Dutch Police seized a 15th-century bible that had been stolen in Germany over 25 years ago and returned to the German authorities. Romanian Police found 128 pieces of ancient Roman military personal equipment, 134 pieces of antique ceramics, and 189 coins (from the Hellenistic, Roman Republican, and Roman Imperial periods) that had been stolen from archaeological sites. German Customs are currently investigating an ancient Mesopotamian crystal cylinder seal that had been shipped to Germany by post. Tools used to facilitate the trafficking of cultural goods, such as metal detectors, were seized as well.

The cyber patrol arm of the operation was coordinated by the Dutch Police. In one week, the authorities targeted 169 suspicious websites and seized of 682 objects. “Fighting the illicit trafficking of cultural goods online is a key challenge,” Europol said in a statement. “Criminal groups take advantage of digital platforms such as websites, social media and instant messaging apps to sell cultural artifacts of unlawful provenance.”

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