Home » Blog » Training to Combat Cultural Heritage Trafficking

Training to Combat Cultural Heritage Trafficking

Nov 19, 2021 | By Alix Medler

Manuscripts, coins, art, and other types of cultural property continue to be illicitly trafficked around the world. The trafficking of these objects is not only a crime but can cause lasting damage to the countries and communities from which the objects are taken. One important avenue we are following to help combat and mitigate this damage is to educate and equip federal law enforcement with the specialized knowledge and resources they need to effectively investigate trafficking cases.

To contribute to these efforts, in March-July 2021, the Smithsonian Institution, in collaboration with the Department of State’s Cultural Antiquities Task Force, Department of Homeland Security’s Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Art Crime Program, and others, organized a three-part virtual workshop series that trained law enforcement personnel to work with specific types of cultural heritage materials. Each workshop included presentations by curatorial and law enforcement experts, strengthening participants’ ability to work with trafficked objects and collaborate with subject matter experts. This can ultimately strengthen the ability of law enforcement personnel to assist with the return of trafficked materials to their rightful owners, usually their countries and communities of origin.

The illicit trafficking of cultural heritage goods consists of the theft, looting, or otherwise illicit removal of cultural property from its country and/or community of origin. Cultural property has value on community, scholarly, and worldwide levels, and thus trafficking causes harm in multiple ways.

First, trafficking harms the community from which the cultural property was taken. Through the illicit removal of these materials, which are a physical manifestation of a community’s or even a civilization’s history, communities can experience both a deep sense of emotional loss and a lack of connection to their own cultures.

Second, trafficking damages scholars’ ability to document and understand a community’s cultural past. Removing these materials from their original settings destroys peoples’ ability to study them in their full context, which can never be restored. 

Finally, trafficking can harm the international community at large. This illicit activity can help fund transnational organized crime, tarnish the credibility of the legitimate trade, and strain diplomatic relations between countries. Together, these dimensions of harm combine to make cultural heritage trafficking a unique crime with serious – and often irreversible – consequences.

“What makes [cultural heritage] cases different? It’s that connection to the physical evidence of humanity on this planet…it’s that connection to the objects that people have made through time,” said Dawn Rogala, a conservator and program manager at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.

For these reasons, it is crucially important for law enforcement personnel to have access to training to gain a better understanding of cultural heritage trafficking. The Smithsonian Institution, with its almost 175 years of experience in working with cultural materials and its vast network of experts, is uniquely qualified to offer support to these workshops.

That’s why, for more than a decade, the Smithsonian, the State Department, and many others have also collaborated to offer an annual introductory-level cultural heritage training program that has trained more than 360 law enforcement personnel since 2009. Building off this success and adapting to the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent 2021 virtual workshop series offered more advanced training to equip law enforcement personnel to combat the trafficking of ancient coins, manuscripts, and fakes and forgeries.

“How do you take care of an object when it’s in your care, how do you find the resources that you need when you are investigating the object, and how do you work with those resources? All of these things are learned in the service of fighting trafficking and looting and preserving cultural heritage,” said Rogala.

Through this advanced training, law enforcement personnel can more effectively investigate and prosecute these cases. This can help facilitate increased and faster returns of trafficked materials to their countries and communities of origin and ultimately help societies recover from cultural loss.

Mary Cook, Program Manager for the Department of Homeland Security’s Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program, said “Cultural property trafficking investigations share many of the same characteristics as other criminal cases, but there are some unique aspects to this type of case that our special agents can learn about only by having access to the types of resources, expertise, and curricula provided by this series of workshops.”

“Our goal is to preserve and protect cultural heritage in situ (in place), but when the worst happens—theft, looting, trafficking, or smuggling—it’s important that our law enforcement partners are prepared to interdict, repatriate, and ultimately prosecute those who participate in this illegal trade,” said Catherine Foster, program director in the Department of State’s Cultural Heritage Center and chair of the Cultural Antiquities Task Force.