In a massive, lightning-strike effort coordinated by the World Customs Organization, Interpol, and Europol, authorities around the world teamed up last fall to attack 300 open investigations into art and artifact theft in over 100 countries. More than 19,000 artworks and artifacts were recovered in just a matter of weeks. 101 suspects were arrested in the operation, which was conducted under a veil of secrecy. Only on Wednesday, May 6th, were details released as the strike was wrapped up.
The reason behind the secrecy wasn’t any James Bond-style dashing heist, but because art and artifact theft often move hand in hand with illegal weapons dealing and drug and human trafficking, meaning the operation all carried a serious amount of risk.
Among the artworks recovered is a 2,000-year-old Tumaco gold mask. The beautiful hammered gold mask, which was looted from a Colombian archaeological site, was seized in a Madrid airport after being tracked through an online sale. The men transporting it were arrested, and they led authorities to 242 more stolen artifacts, all on their way to other illicit buyers.
Interpol estimates that art and antiquities illegal trafficked generates billions of dollars a year, making it one of the world’s most profitable illegal trades after drugs and arms dealing. Though of course, it is difficult to fiscally separate the three.
Hopefully, another one of these organized stings will take place again soon, as art thieves have been taking advantage of pandemic-related closures to rob museums and other sites. A Van Gogh original was stolen from a Dutch museum in March in an obviously targeted heist, and it has so far not resurfaced. Watchdog groups who monitor illegal sales activity say they’ve been seeing an increase in art pieces being sold from sites in the Middle East and North Africa, where mosques and archaeological sites have been left closed and unprotected by the pandemic.
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