Fighting against illicit trafficking of cultural goods on the Internet: UNESCO and its partners’ response.

 World – Official Newsletter of the Parties Issue 19


UNESCO has been a major actor in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property for many years.

At the level of normative action, UNESCO has elaborated different treaties to fight against this reprehensible phenomenon which may occur in different contexts: the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) and its two protocols (1954 and 1999), and the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970). The latter was completed by the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects in 1995, and both are operative in time of peace. The more recent conventions [the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001), the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) and the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005)] also play an important role in the protection of the cultural heritage in all its dimensions.

At the level of diplomatic action and 'good offices', an Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation was established to deal with more exceptional cases generally outside the scope of those international treaties.

With the advent of the Internet, the traffic of cultural goods has become more and more complex. Indeed, the Internet allows traffickers to sell stolen cultural artefacts more easily and more rapidly. However, at the same time, the Internet also provides tools that help fighting against illicit trafficking.

1. The illicit trafficking of cultural property on the Internet: the issue

The illicit traffic of cultural property is a very important issue and, as such, it is regularly the object of recommendations adopted at meetings of the INTERPOL Expert Group (IEG) on Stolen Cultural Property, in which UNESCO participates. The necessity to create a committee of experts dealing with stolen cultural property became apparent after the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001 and the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in 2003.

The IEG on Stolen Cultural Property discussed illicit trafficking of cultural property through the Internet for the first time at its third meeting  (Lyon, March 2006). Recognizing the difficulties for law enforcement agencies to respond to the increasing sale of cultural objects through the Internet, participants in that meeting recommended that "INTERPOL, UNESCO and ICOM develop and disseminate to their respective member countries a common list of basic recommended actions to counter the increasing illicit sale of cultural objects through the Internet". This led to the elaboration of the list of "Basic Actions concerning Cultural Objects being offered for Sale over the Internet".

At the fifth meeting of the IEG on Stolen Cultural Property (Lyon, 4-5 March 2008), participants stated that they were "conscient of the persistent use of the Internet for the illicit sale of cultural property involving responsibility on the part of the Internet platforms", and recommended to the INTERPOL General Secretariat "to collect and periodically disseminate information from member countries concerning agreements with Internet platforms with a view to reducing the illicit online sales of cultural property." They also recommended to INTERPOL and UNESCO member countries "to conclude agreements with Internet platforms containing the limitation of sale of cultural property according to national law, the self control of the Internet platforms, and activities of raising public awareness of the need for the protection of cultural property", and "to encourage Internet platforms, auction houses and art dealers to grant free access to online and conventional catalogues for law enforcement agencies".

In February 2009, participants in the sixth meeting of the IEG on Stolen Cultural Property  acknowledged the use of the Internet for the illicit sale of cultural property and recommended to national authorities to continue their efforts to fight against the illicit transfer of cultural property through the Internet, and to establish specific agreements with the main Internet platforms.

A study by INTERPOL on the use of the Internet in the selling of cultural goods has underlined the huge difficulties that authorities face in this field . These difficulties are also mentioned in a document drafted by UNESCO, in close collaboration with INTERPOL and ICOM, to provide advice to its Member States on "Basic Actions concerning Cultural Objects being offered for Sale over the Internet" .

This document lists a number of reasons why monitoring the traffic of cultural property on the Internet is so difficult:

a)   the sheer volume and diversity of items offered for sale;
b)   the variety of venues or platforms for the sale of cultural objects on the Internet;
c)   missing information that hinders proper identification of objects;
d)   the limited reaction time available owing to short bidding periods during a sale;
e)   the legal position of the companies, entities or individuals serving as platforms for the trade in cultural objects over the Internet;
f)    the complex issues related to jurisdiction concerning these sales; and
g)   the fact that the objects sold are often located in a country different from that of the Internet platform.

As a consequence INTERPOL, UNESCO and ICOM have developed a list of "Basic Actions to counter the Increasing Illicit Sale of Cultural Objects through the Internet" inviting the Member States of INTERPOL and UNESCO and the States with ICOM National Committees to:

1. Strongly encourage Internet sales platforms to post the following disclaimer on all their cultural objects sales pages:

With regard to cultural objects proposed for sale, and before buying them, buyers are advised to:

i)          check and request a verification of the licit provenance of the object, including documents providing evidence of legal export (and possibly import) of the object likely to have been imported;

ii)         request evidence of the seller's legal title. In case of doubt, check primarily with the national authorities of the country of origin and INTERPOL, and possibly with UNESCO or ICOM.

2. Request Internet platforms to disclose relevant information to law enforcement Agencies and to cooperate with them on investigations of suspicious sales offers of cultural objects;

3. Establish a central authority (within national police forces or other), which is also responsible for the protection of cultural properties, in charge of permanently checking and monitoring sales of cultural objects via the Internet;

4. Cooperate with national and foreign police forces and INTERPOL as well as the responsible authorities of other States concerned, in order to:

  1. Insure that any theft and/or any illegal appropriation of cultural objects be reported to INTERPOL National Central Bureaux, in order to enable relevant information to be posted on the INTERPOL Stolen Works of Art Database;
  2. Make information available about theft and/or any illegal appropriation of cultural objects, as well as about any subsequent sale of such cultural objects, from or to national territories, using the Internet;
  3. Facilitate rapid identification of cultural objects by:

            i) ensuring updated inventories with photographs of cultural objects, or at least their description, for example through the Object ID standard;
            ii) maintaining a list of recommended experts;

  1. Use all the tools at their disposal to conduct checks of suspicious cultural property, in particular the INTERPOL Stolen Works of Art Database and the corresponding INTERPOL DVD;
  2. Track and prosecute criminal activities related to the sale of cultural objects on the Internet and inform the INTERPOL General Secretariat of major investigations involving several countries.

5. Maintain statistics and register information on the checks conducted concerning the sale of cultural objects via the Internet, the vendors in question and the results obtained;

6. Establish legal measures to immediately seize cultural objects in case of a reasonable doubt concerning their licit provenance;

7. Assure the return of seized objects of illicit provenance to their rightful owners.

It has been specified in the report on the 2006-2007 activities of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation , that, despite its advisory nature, the document entitled Basic Actions to counter the Increasing Illicit Sale of Cultural Objects through the Internet  had been submitted for consideration to the State Members of UNESCO and Interpol and to the members of ICOM and that these States were strongly encouraged to convince Internet platforms to adopt such measures.

Concrete measures have also been taken following the various recommendations issued by UNESCO and its partners.

2. Concrete measures

Most of the measures have been undertaken in partnership with eBay. eBay has 83.9 million active users in the world and there are 8.29 million new objects which are put up for sale on eBay’s website each day. One of eBay’s main objectives is to maintain trust on the market and to provide for a safe and efficient platform. There are rules imposed by eBay meant to guarantee the legality of all the exchanges which take place on the platform. For example there will be warning messages, according to the category of the object, advising sellers to abide by the law and warning them about the legal proceedings that can be carried out if the rules are infringed.

eBay also cooperates with some national authorities to fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property. In France, eBay has built an interface that the OCBC can use to search for stolen goods and artefacts which would be put up for sale online. Thus the OCBC agents can use this tool in the course of their inquiries. Moreover, eBay regularly transfers data to the OCBC for deeper verifications.

A pilot project was also developed in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In those countries, the sale of a cultural good was only possible via the Internet platform if the seller could prove that the object was authentic. In order to do so, the seller had to provide a legible document. Otherwise, the object was taken off the site.

In Switzerland, this pilot project lasted three months and yielded excellent results. As a result, the Swiss authorities decided to sign a memorandum of understanding with eBay, aimed at preventing the illicit trafficking of cultural goods on the Internet. This memorandum directly results from the application by Switzerland of the recommendations of INTERPOL’s Expert Group on Stolen Cultural Property held on 4-5 March 2008 and 10-11 February 2009 concerning the illicit trafficking of cultural property on the Internet. By signing this memorandum of understanding, eBay has accepted to authorize the sale in Switzerland of cultural property only if the goods are certified by competent Swiss or foreign authorities. This limitation applies particularly to cultural property which belongs to 'risk categories', such as those in ICOM’s Red Lists . There will be controls to ensure that this condition is respected. There will also be preventive information on the issue of the traffic of archaeological goods coming from illicit excavations.

Nevertheless, one must not forget that, if the Internet makes illicit trafficking of cultural goods easier for the traffickers, it also provides new tools for the authorities to fight them.


The Internet provides a valuable tool for traffickers, making the illicit trafficking of cultural property faster, easier and ever more difficult to fight for the authorities. However, the Internet can also be used against traffickers.

The Internet makes communications faster and easier. Today, when an object is stolen, warnings can be issued throughout the world very easily and rapidly. But the Internet’s role does not stop here: many databases and software have been created to flag up stolen artefacts and to help their being found on the market when thieves try to re-sell them.

INTERPOL has developed a database on stolen works of art, which can be accessed by specialized services and by individuals who have requested a special authorization. National police forces have also developed similar databases, such as TREIMA for the OCBC in France.

Finally there are also non-governmental databases, such as the Art Loss Register. Created in 1991, this register is the work of a private company whose mission is the cooperation between the police and the art world. The database works on the following principle: a commission is paid to the Art Loss Register by the victim or the insurance company once the object is retrieved (the restitution rate is usually of 15 %).

Similarly, in France, a private network of insurance companies, known as Argos, uses a database with the data provided by insurance companies and software (web crawler) that helps retrieve images from the Internet and treat the information thus retrieved.

Edouard Planche
Programme Specialist
Division of Cultural Objects and Intangible Heritage
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
1, rue Miollis
F-75 732 Paris CEDEX 15, France

See the minutes of the seventh International Symposium on the theft of and illicit traffic in works of art, cultural property and antiques at:


OCBC : Office Central de lutte contre le trafic des Biens Culturels (Central Office in the Fight against Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Goods)