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France seeks crackdown on EU art traffickers

  • A golden sarcophagus was looted from Egypt in 2011 (Photo: EUobserver)
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Europe is a haven for stolen art trafficking and EU states should be doing more about it, France has said.

"Crime targeting cultural property has flourished during the pandemic," the French EU presidency warned in a memo about Trafficking of cultural goods on 20 January, seen by EUobserver.

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There were spikes in looting from Asia and the South Pacific, the Americas, and Africa in 2020, France noted, citing figures from a recent study by 72 Interpol countries.

"In 2020, 854,742 cultural objects were seized worldwide, including numismatic objects (coins, banknotes, or medals), paintings, sculptures, archaeological objects, and library materials. Two thirds of these objects were seized in Europe," France told fellow EU states.

"Most of the stolen antiquities seized in recent years in New York have also passed through the European Union," France added.

Paris highlighted a case, from 2020, of a golden sarcophagus looted from Egypt in 2011 which had been "exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after having been 'laundered' in [EU] member states with false certificates".

"A heavy fine for tax evasion was also imposed in December 2021 on Galerie Phoenix, which is based in Geneva [Switzerland], but has numerous intermediaries in EU member states," France said.

The French presidency threw its weight behind EU Commission proposals to improve "traceability" in the single market's art sector.

The new measures should be "at least as ambitious" as EU anti-wildlife trafficking rules from 2016, it said.

"Over the past decade, the world has witnessed an alarming increase in the destruction of cultural heritage due to armed conflict," France said.

"The destruction and looting of heritage can be linked to the persecution of individuals and populations on cultural grounds. It can also be a problem for security and stability, as well as a war crime," it added.

Meanwhile, higher standards would "enable the European Union to assert itself today as a global player on a subject whose scale and importance have long been underestimated", France also said.

Under a 1970s UN convention, dealers in EU countries were already meant to "keep a register indicating the provenance of each cultural object" and "the name and address of the supplier", among other details, the French memo explained.

But "it is clear that not all EU member states have fully implemented the obligation," it added.

France proposed new EU customs rules to help "prevent goods that have illegally left their territory of origin (EU or third country) from being considered legal once they are marketed in a member state".

And it suggested creating a joint EU police "secretariat" for "coordination, monitoring, and analysis" on the black market by experts in the field.

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