Often, the emphasis surrounding illicit cultural property is on the illicit trade. However, many of the measures implemented nationally and internationally to target illicit trafficking of cultural property also concern the import and export of cultural property between countries, regardless of whether a sale takes place.

Those involved in importing or exporting artefacts are often acting in their legitimate course of business on the instructions of a client, but they may also have independent obligations to exercise due diligence to ensure that they are not unwittingly assisting in the trafficking of illicit cultural property. Failure to do so may be a criminal offence if there is reason to suspect that an artefact has been illegally exported and a shipper or courier imports or exports that artefact (or, in some countries, arranges or assists another to do so).

Best practice for anyone being asked to import or export a cultural artefact is to consider the circumstances, in much the same way as a purchaser may do when deciding whether to acquire an artefact. The information provided when preparing to import, export, or inspect a cultural artefact as it travels between counties may differ from the information offered to a potential collector. However, the information should be considered using the same standards.
Many countries require a country of origin to be stated on import/ export paperwork as well as listing the destination country and the country of last export. If accurate, this information should be consistent and maintained. If this information is inconsistent without a good explanation (for example, if there are multiple countries of origin listed on import paperwork), this ought to raise suspicion.

A shipper or courier might also want to refer to the ICOM Red Lists assess whether extra due diligence is required for particular artefacts. It may also be prudent to consult the ICOM Red Lists for multiple possible countries of origin, especially where only the ancient civilisation is listed, and that ancient civilisation pertains to several modern-day countries.

The circumstances of the import or export are also important. Sophisticated criminal networks import and export illicit cultural property through “transit countries” to create a paper trail for an artefact, taking advantage of countries with weaker border controls or differing legal systems. Anyone being asked to import or export an artefact should ask themselves whether there is any reason to be suspicious. For example, is the artefact is taking an indirect route, or travelling through multiple countries without explanation?

Professional shippers may also be expected to know which artefacts should be accompanied by an export licence, and so the standard of whether an individual had reason to suspect, or ought to have had suspicion, will always depend on the circumstances, but may also depend on the knowledge and experience of the person importing or exporting the artefact.

See the ICOM Red Lists on ICOMs website

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