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

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. 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.

While art experts interviewed for the GAO report believe recent media attention has reduced the trade of stolen Iraqi and Syrian artifacts in the U.S., an earlier research report written by the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance was more critical. The report recognized that some artifacts can enter the U.S. by manipulating its country of origin. It states that many artifacts at risk of being trafficked have characteristics that associates them with multiple countries, a result of historic borders often not matching current borders. In this case, many artifacts from Syria and Iraq can be improperly categorized as coming from other middle eastern countries. Art market experts interviewed for the GAO report suggested that CBP should update its procedures and guidance on importing archaeological property with dubious country of origins. According to the GAO report, the CBP officials interviewed agreed with this suggestion.

​The issue illustrates the broad and challenging mission that U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officers face in keeping weapons, narcotics, harmful materials, counterfeit goods, improperly declared items, and other contraband out of the U.S.

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