The rise of international commercial enterprises whose main goal is profiteering from crime related to cultural heritage has led Europe to develop police departments specifically aimed at combating this kind of crime. Italy was the first country in the world to have such a police department knowing that destruction to archaeological, historical and artistic heritage can permanently damage part of a nation’s identity, economically as well as culturally.

There are four main categories of criminals who operate within organizations involved in the smuggling of cultural heritage objects:

  • Thieves (who generally act on assignment).
  • The receivers of stolen goods.
  • Smugglers.
  • Money launderers.

These types of criminals (some of whom are experts within the fields of archeology, art, antiques, ecclesiastical and bibliographical material) are involved daily in the plundering of the historical-artistic patrimony of a nation.

“Rare art is altered and ‘Cleaned up’ by professional criminal restorers”

In order for each stolen piece to be introduced onto the market it must be “cleaned up” so as to make it more difficult to identify. Merchandise is modified by art restorers experienced in some of the most specific methods, and then returned to the receivers of stolen goods and smugglers. After producing false certificates, these criminals sell the merchandise within the illegal art market. To export the goods a wide variety of methods and channels are used, such as international transport companies, recreational pleasure boats, refrigerated trucks and even high speed inter-continental trains.

To avoid recognition, the works of art in most cases are offered for sale through the use of auctioneers or antique stores far away from where they were illegally removed. After being certified fraudulently, making them seem legally suitable to be sold, they are able to avoid customs and security controls.

These Crimes Are Nearly Always Cross-Border

Archaeological findings, stolen in Italy, mainly pass through Switzerland, Germany and Austria to reach, in most cases, Britain. These are then sent to other destinations around the world. Paintings, however, generally pass through Switzerland, France and Belgium in order to reach Britain and then on to the worldwide market.

Private art lovers are prepared to go to great lengths to come into possession of priceless artifacts”

Legitimate commercial transactions have been greatly affected by the illegal art market, mostly due to the fact that some private art lovers are prepared to go to great lengths to come into possession of priceless artifacts. As well as the  inappropriate use of the Internet within the market for cultural heritage objects, a transformation of the traditional dynamics of trade have taken place which is difficult to defend against.

Italian Laws Used By Italian Lawyers To Prevent Crime Related To Cultural Heritage

In Italy the protection of historical and artistic heritage, is provided by two legislative means:

  • A customs related procedure on the export of cultural heritage objects.

This makes it very difficult for these types of criminal gangs to export their artifacts out of Italy, further backed up by joint protection of the external borders of the European Economic Community.

  • A directive on the restitution of cultural heritage objects unlawfully removed from a member state of the European Union, which allows each member state to claim the ownership of the works removed in violation to the laws of the country of origin.