Massive seizure of stolen antiquities highlights the need for greater accountability in record keeping and provenance

18,000 illegally trafficked antiquities were recently confiscated in Operation Pandora III, carried out by the Spanish Civil Guard, Europol, Interpol, and the World Customs Organization.

Earlier this month, police from 29 countries launched an operation to recover more than 18,000 stolen goods ranging from archaeological items, furniture, coins, paintings, musical instruments, and sculptures. The raid, 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), and lead to the arrest of 59 individuals.

Since October 2018, joint authorities have been working to investigate and prevent the trafficking of illicit goods, many of which come from war-torn countries, which are later bought and sold on websites like Facebook and other social media sites, which Europol claims are now, increasingly, being used to buy and sell stolen artworks.

Authorities said they targeted auction houses, art galleries, museums, ports, airports, border crossing points, and private houses, and that the majority of goods recovered originated from European countries.

The confiscated coins date back to the times of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, the statement said. Europol highlighted that the goods intercepted in Romania were among the “operation highlights”, a category that also included artifacts seized in Spain, Italy, Poland, Germany and The Netherlands.

In addition, “Dutch Police spotted a 15th-century bible that had been stolen in Germany over 25 years ago. This rare edition was seized and returned to Germany,” Europol said of one of the “highlights.”

Commenting about another seizure, Europol said, was “an ancient Mesopotamian crystal cylinder seal that had been shipped to Germany by post” sequestrated in this case by German Customs.

All of the items, Europol states, were sold online on websites, social media and/or instant messaging applications like WhatsApp and Telegram. As news of the seizures quickly spread, few journalists or commentators have made the connection between creating stronger links and provenance in order to combat the trafficking of illicit goods.

Though Interpol maintains a database of stolen antiquities and artworks, the global repository’s weakness lies in the fact that many of the works trafficked are done through informal networks and on social media, which remains outside the purview of Interpol’s database. The transactions occurring through the use of the Internet and social media create unique challenges for law enforcement attempting to retrieve stolen items.

Hence, there is a strong need for ensuring better provenance and documentation of art works and antiquities of national and cultural importance. One way countries and cultural property can be better protected is through a process known as Digital Twin by .ART.

As a verifiable digital certificate of authenticity, hosted as a unique domain name, Digital Twin by .ART augments the physical details of artworks and antiquities including, but not limited to, the name, title, medium, dimensions, chain of custody, and other related data. It is based on standards set by the J. Paul Getty Trust and endured by Interpol, Scotland Yard, UNESCO and other authoritative bodies who actively pursue and attempt to retrieve stolen goods, which can be further augmented by tools such as Google Alerts, for example, that can help track and locate when a stolen artwork is placed online.

As the illicit market for stolen goods continues to expand online, the application of Digital Twin by .ART can add levels of security to help ensure that trafficked goods are returned to their rightful owner.

 To Find Out More About How Digital Twin by .ART Can Help Alleviate Art Trafficking, click here 

Also published on Medium.

Dorian Batychka
Dorian Batychka
is a journalist and curator. In addition to contributing to numerous publications such as Frieze, Hyperallergic, Canadian Art and Mousse, he has curated exhibitions and projects at the Venice Biennale and Bait Muzna in Oman.