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Europol Cracks Down on Art Trafficking Ring

More than 19,000 archaeological artifacts and other artworks were recovered as part of a global operation across 103 countries, resulting in the arrest of 101 suspects and encompassing 300 investigations in a coordinated crackdown, Europol announced in May.

The criminal networks involved handled archaeological goods and art looted from war-torn countries, museums, and archaeological sites. Artifacts seized in global Operation ATHENA II—led by the World Customs Organization and Interpol—included coins, ceramics, historical weapons, paintings, and fossils.

Some highlights of the multinational operation, as touted by Europol, include the recovery of rare pre-Columbian objects—such as a Tumaco gold mask, gold figurines, and ancient jewelry—at Barajas airport in Madrid; the seizure of 2,500 ancient coins following an Argentinian Federal Police Force investigation of a single case of online sale; and the last-minute seizure of 971 cultural objects at Kabul airport by Afghan Customs, just as the objects were about to depart for Turkey.

“Organized crime has many faces,” said Catherine de Bolle, Europol executive director, in a press statement. “The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them; it is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks. You cannot look at it separately from combatting trafficking in drugs and weapons: we know that the same groups are engaged, because it generates big money. Given that this is a global phenomenon affecting every country on the planet—either as a source, transit, or destination—it is crucial that law enforcement all work together to combat it.”