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Art Investigations - Operation "Medicus" - Ancient Art, Illicit Revenue


After a months-long investigation, European authorities arrested members of an international crime gang in June 2020 for ransacking ancient sites in Bulgaria and trafficking stolen archaeological goods worth millions of euros.

The operation— dubbed MEDICUS —began when British police tipped off Bulgarian police in March 2018 about suspicious trafficking of cultural goods out of the country, including ceramics, glass funeral urns, lamps, arrowheads, spears, and ancient coins. Many of these items—4,600 in total—dated back to the Roman period, with some from the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Middle Ages.

The goods were excavated out of Bulgaria and smuggled into the United Kingdom by private transportation operators, often taking a route through Germany.

“This case confirms that the most common way to dispose of archaeological goods illegally excavated is by entering the legitimate art market,” according to Europol. “This modus operandi takes advantage of the fact that the existence of these goods is not officially known, therefore their illicit origin can be hidden by providing them with a false backstory (fake documents of provenance).”

Artifacts, for instance, can be looted and exported illegally from one nation only to be sold legally in another because of how that artifact is classified in the process.

“These ambiguities compound the practical objective of distinguishing between licit and illicit items in that establishing authenticity, provenance, and ownership are tasks that require specialized knowledge beyond most police and customs officers’ standard training,” according to RAND. “The resulting variations in the identification, enforcement, and prosecution of crimes related to the antiquities trade introduce additional uncertainties that obscure the volume and character of both the legal and black-market trade. Finally, the art and antiquities community’s culture of secrecy conceals the identities of participants and undermines efforts to calculate the volume and value of goods traded.”

It’s also unknown how much money is at stake in this tradecraft because no government, international body, or research group has the ability to maintain comprehensive statistics on the global antiquities trade, RAND said.

What has been unusual, however, is the organized approach that the Islamic State took to looting and selling antiquities. In the lead-up to 2014, RAND found that the Islamic State distributed licenses to regulate antiquities trading and imposed taxes between 20 and 50 percent of proceeds from sales of these items in its territory. The Islamic State also had an administrative division that oversaw excavations of antiquities in its territory and paid—or pressured—curators and archeologists to help it locate valuable sites, direct excavation teams, and invest in metal detectors, heavy machinery, and more.

The focus on antiquities trafficking shows how the Islamic State sought to diversify its funding streams away from other mechanisms that might be subject to sanctions, such as oil, or would result in pushback from the local economy.

“Unlike human or drug smuggling, extortion, or kidnapping, which risk embittering local populations, the organized excavation of artifacts is unlikely to spur organized opposition in many contexts,” RAND found. “Indeed, it may provide an avenue to improve an organization’s relationship to impoverished populations.”

While this dynamic may exist for nonstate actors, regimes are involved in antiquities trafficking and looting, too, says Samuel Hardy, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oslo’s Norwegian Institute in Rome and former consultant for UNESCO.

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