Trafficking in cultural goods is a lucrative business for organised crime, and in some cases even for conflict parties and terrorists. This is due in particular to the low risk of detection, the potential for high margins, and the attractive size of the licit and illicit markets, driven by a stable to increasing global demand from collectors, investors and museums.
The main illegal activities associated with trafficking in cultural goods are theft and robbery, looting (the illicit removal of ancient relics from archaeological sites, buildings or monuments) and forgery of cultural goods. Further linked crimes include fraud, disposal of stolen goods (fencing), smuggling, or corruption. Beyond trafficking, criminals can abuse even legally acquired cultural goods, for money laundering, sanctions evasion, tax evasion or terrorism financing.
At the same time, cultural goods trafficking and related crimes can have a devastating and irreversible impact on cultural heritage within and beyond the EU.
Preventing and fighting trafficking of cultural goods and related crimes necessitates additional common and sustained efforts from a large range of stakeholders within and beyond the EU, including public authorities (police, customs, border guards, and ministries of culture, financial intelligence units, and the judiciary), cultural heritage institutions, and market participants.
Tackling this complex, inherently transnational criminal phenomenon requires a tailor-made response at EU level, as laid down in the EU Security Union Strategy 2020-2025 and the EU Strategy to Tackle Organised Crime 2021-2025.
On 13 December 2022, the European Commission presented the EU action plan against trafficking in cultural goods. This action plan aims to deter criminals effectively, to address evolving security threats and to protect cultural heritage within and beyond the EU. The action plan builds on existing EU activity and addresses ongoing challenges through: improving prevention and detection of crimes by market participants and cultural heritage institutions; strengthening law enforcement and judicial capabilities; and boosting international cooperation, including with source and transit countries of cultural goods in conflicts and crises.
Targeted law enforcement action against cultural goods trafficking includes the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats EMPACT (for example the annual law enforcement operation Pandora) and Europol.