CBP’s Challenge in Preventing the Importation of Stolen Cultural Property

CBP’s Challenge in Preventing the Importation of Stolen Cultural Property

September 22, 2016

As the lead U.S. Government Agency responsible for preventing the illegal importation of stolen artifacts at the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a significant challenge in interdicting traffic of Middle East antiquities stolen and smuggled amidst ongoing violence in the region. This area of responsibility includes: investigating suspicious imports of cultural property, seizing suspicious merchandise, and repatriating stolen or smuggled cultural property. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report “Cultural Property: Protection of Iraqi and Syrian Antiquities” discussed that challenge and the debate within area of study regarding the extent of the problem.

According to some art experts referenced in the GAO report, the U.S. is one of the world’s largest antiquities markets and thus a key destination for illegally trafficked cultural property. As part of its investigation, the GAO interviewed art experts and museum curators for their insight into the flow of Iraqi and Syrian cultural property entering the U.S. market. The experts and curators interviewed stated that there was no discernible increase in Syrian or Iraqi cultural property. Instead, they argue that heightened media attention of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL) pillaging and smuggling of cultural property may be deterring the purchase of these artifacts.

Yaya Fanusie of the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, however, is not as convinced. In his November 2015 report, he argues that illegally trafficked goods may be entering the U.S. through the manipulation of the customs-declaration process. Fanusie notes the large increase of Iraqi antiquities entering U.S. and European markets between 2010 and 2014, a time period that coincides with ISIL’s rapid acquisition of Iraqi and Syrian territory. While these goods were imported legally, Fanusie asserts that these goods could include stolen cultural property entering the U.S. under a false country of origin. Fanusie’s report suggests CBP Officers confront the challenging task of recognizing the artistic characteristics and qualities that associate artifacts with different time periods and regions in order to prevent the illegal entry of stolen artifacts into the U.S. market.

Fortunately, there are tools that can be leveraged to better identify stolen cultural property. The GAO report lists databases and resources available to law enforcement agencies that can assist in the identification of stolen cultural artifacts commonly trafficked. Some of the databases and resources listed include: Art Loss RegisterArt Recovery International, and the Emergency Red Lists published by the International Council of Museums. The databases listed provide a registry of antiquities known to be stolen while the red lists highlight the types of cultural objects at risk of illegal trafficking. Additionally, Section 606 of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 authorizes CBP officials to accept training from experts outside the federal government that can improve CBP’s ability to identify cultural property, archeological or ethnological materials.

While these tools exist, CBP will still face challenges in curbing the illicit trade of antiquities. Many of the types of artifacts named in the red lists are artifacts that can be mistaken as originating from another country. Because modern borders do not often match ancient borders there can be discrepancies in determining the country of origin of archaeological materials and these stolen artifacts can be improperly declared more easily. To combat this, art market experts interviewed for the GAO report suggested that CBP update its procedures and guidance on importing cultural property. Specifically, art experts found it necessary to redefine country of origin questions for archaeological property. The GAO report stated that CBP officials interviewed agreed with this suggestion.

The Illicit trade of antiquities is not unique to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but is an age-old issue that has preoccupied security professionals of nations throughout history. As part of the fight against ISIL, which uses the black market trade in antiquities to finance its terror operations, the U.S. can lead the global fight against the trafficking of antiquities. The issue illustrates the broad and challenging mission that CBP Officers face in keeping weapons, narcotics, harmful materials, counterfeit goods, improperly declared items, and other contraband out of the U.S.

Allen Gina is a Founding Partner of Border Management Services Firm, CT Strategies, operating in the U.S. and Latin America. He previously served as the Assistant Commissioner of U.S. Customs & Border Protection’s, Office of International Trade, where he was responsible for leading the most extensive trade transformation initiative in CBP’s history.  Prior to that, Mr. Gina served as the Assistant Commissioner for International Affairs; (A) Assistant and Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Intelligence and Operations Coordination, and (A) Executive Director for the Joint Operations Directorate at CBP.

He is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Senior Executive Fellows Program.  Mr. Gina has received numerous commendations and awards, to include the World Customs Organization Partnership Award and has been conferred the rank of Meritorious Executive by the President of the United States.