The international market for art & antiquities is worth billions.

Developed and developing nations alike fall victim to the international trade in illicit antiquities. Estimates put the value of this illegal trade at around $6 billion per year, making it the third or fourth largest category of criminal activity worldwide, following drugs and arms trafficking.

Thefts from museums in developed nations often receive a fair amount of media attention, such as the theft of a Picasso and a Mondrian from the National Gallery of Art in Athens earlier this year. Less well reported are thefts from developing nations, in part due to the limited resources they have available to even properly document their cultural heritage, let alone protect it.

The theft of cultural heritage is often a by-product of war & civil unrest, such as the loss of heritage material in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Those last two links go to Interpol pages listing cultural property known to have been stolen from these two countries).

Much stolen material ends up on the western art markets (especially the US market) with dodgy provenance records. In other cases, art works are held to ransom. Of course, some thieves are just stupid and don’t realise that the sale of a famous and well-documented stolen art work is next to impossible.

But “well-documented” is part of the key to combating the trade in antiquities from less affluent nations. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) maintains a database of objects at high risk of theft in more vulnerable countries, such as Mexico, Cambodia and Haiti.

Groups like ICOM and Interpol run programs to assist developing nations counter the illicit trade in cultural heritage.