Art trafficking is reported to be the third largest international criminal activity after the trade of drugs and arms. UNESCO aims to change that with its The Real Price of Art campaign.

From famous artworks swiped from the walls of museums to artefacts pillaged from archaeological sites, theft of national heritage items is a rampant, centuries-long problem. It affects communities all over the world, but all too often the victims have been citizens of countries who have historically been subjected to colonization. This year marks the 50th anniversary of UNESCO’s 1970 Convention, which established measures to prohibit and prevent this illicit import, export and transport of cultural property.

To this day, the trade is valued at $10 billion each year – profit that can, and often does, serve as a major financial source for criminal and terrorist organizations. Because this illegal business is more prosperous (read: in demand) than ever, UNESCO has initiated a campaign to help educate the general public and those in the art and design spheres. The Real Price of Art underlines the devastating loss of collective history and identity that cultural theft incurs.

Photographed is the lower left piece of the Ghent Altarpiece, a Flemish masterpiece of which the essential part was stolen in 1934, never to be recovered.

‘UNESCO's mission is to spark worldwide interest in the fight against this illicit traffic in cultural property, through actions that contribute to raising international awareness,’ says Sunna Altnoder, head of the Movable Heritage and Museums Unit at UNESCO. ‘In recent years, illicit trafficking has increased exponentially, and this phenomenon has been worsened during the health crisis.’

How so? According to The UNESCO Courier, a team of anthropologists and heritage experts at the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) Project realized that there was a surge in the sale of stolen cultural objects on social media networks during the first lockdown this year. While the findings resulted in Facebook banning sales of this nature, the problem persists as online marketplaces grow. Often times, these objects go on to end up with private collectors or merchants in Western capitals. Because origin tracing is not always possible, rightful restitution can take decades – or never happen at all. ‘The craze for these objects, the prices of which have skyrocketed; the leniency of sanctions and the vulnerability of sites in conflict zones are all challenges that need to be addressed to curb the trafficking of what some call “blood antiquities”,’ writes UNESCO’s French editor Agnès Bardon in the article.

If there is no demand, there is no supply. It is therefore important to remain attentive at all levels

Altnoder believes that buyers and sellers, such as ‘professionals and actors in art and design’, share equal responsibility in changing this trajectory. ‘It is essential that every citizen of the world is aware that we all have a collective responsibility to protect and transmit to future generations our cultural property that bears witness to the history of humanity. Ignorance and lack of ethics are the deepest causes of illicit trafficking in cultural property, hence the importance of the proper diligence in the sale of cultural property for all actors in the market. If there is no demand, there is no supply. It is therefore important to remain attentive at all levels.’

Hero image: An antiquity similar to the sculpture of a 'woman with polos' pictured here was stolen from Syria, then smuggled into the European market in 2014.