UNESCO is holding a summit with experts from around the art world to work out how to stop the illegal trade in antiquities. Artworks and artefacts are often smuggled out by unscrupulous dealers from countries torn apart by war.  According to UNESCO, illicit trafficking in a nations cultural heritage is a lucrative global scourge, affecting  all regions of the world and its impact has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Peter Stone, President of the Blue Shield, and Professor at the Newcastle University, UK, spoke to Associated Press on 19 September 2021.

Associated Press STORY-LINE: These precious relics of Afghanistan’s ancient past were recovered and returned in April this year. Their long term security however is by no means certain. The previous Afghan government has fallen and the Taliban has already announced an all-male interim government for Afghanistan stacked with veterans from their hard-line rule from the 1990s. The collection of 33 artefacts now returned, were seized from a New York-based art dealer who authorities say was one of the world’s most prolific smugglers of antiquities. According to UNESCO, illicit trafficking in a nations cultural heritage is a lucrative global scourge. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization says the trade affects all regions of the world and its impact has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Archaeologist Professor Peter Stone from the University of Newcastle is a former President of the Blue Shield – an international NGO created in 1996 to advise UNESCO on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflicts. Stone says the trafficking is in most cases connected to other forms of organised crime and army raids on smugglers have shown just how close the relationship is. “On one side of the room, there are illicit guns, on the other side there are stashes of money, on the third side there are drugs, and on the fourth side, there are antiquities. It’s the same problem. And antiquities is and cultural property in general is just a facet of large scale criminal activity,” he says. According to Stone police forces across the world have limited funds to equip them to fight the trade in illegal antiquities and they have to set priorities. Stone raises the UK as an example. He says: “There are countless police and other organisations trying to combat that trade in drugs, in armaments, etc., there are at the moment three people in the UK police system in the Metropolitan Police who deal with the theft and trade in illicit cultural property.” UNESCO says during the health crisis, reduced surveillance, protection and resources, have made a bad problem harder to address. Closed museums and archaeological sites have been looted on a large scale, it says and the organisation observes an increase in sales although no figure has been mentioned. “Illicit markets, the biggest markets have traditionally been London and various centres in the United States, that’s expanding, there are now markets in the Far East, in China and elsewhere, and also in South America and to some extent in the Gulf. So it’s a it’s a trade, it’s a problem that is growing in terms of market and therefore, the knock on effect of that is the source countries get targeted more frequently,” explains Stone. Years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan have fuelled the illegal trade, allowing militants to raise arms and launder money. Stone says it’s not possible to accurately measure the monetary value of smuggling antiquities. As Afghanistan becomes increasingly isolated from the international community concern is growing not just for its people, but its heritage. Organisations like the Blue Shield and UNESCO are bracing themselves for an increase in the illegal trade. Smugglers and organised crime are among those who profit from a breakdown in societal structure during war and civil unrest.