Cultural Heritage Programme

The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organised cross-border crime and has become a worldwide phenomenon high on the list of priority concerns for WCO Member Administrations. In this regard, it is widely recognised that international borders still offer the best opportunity to intercept stolen cultural artefacts, and to that end Customs plays a fundamental role in the fight against the unauthorised export of cultural items.

Cultural heritage smuggling diminishes national patrimony and steadily deprives the society of experiencing some of the most significant and precious cultural treasures. Every year, thousands of artefacts disappear from museums, churches, private collections or public institutions. From antique weapons to paintings, from coins to watches, from religious objects to archaeological finds, tens of thousands of specimens forming part of the world’s archaeological and cultural heritage are stolen.

Clear linkages between this form of crime and tax evasion and money laundering have been evidenced over the past years. Estimates of the size and profitability of black markets in looted, stolen or smuggled works of art are notoriously unreliable, but specialists agree that this is one of the world’s biggest illegal enterprises, worth billions of US dollars, which has naturally attracted interest of organised crime.

The diversification of the financing of terrorist organizations through the trade in cultural goods is also a focus of attention for law enforcement agencies. Moreover, conflict zones have become attractive targets for criminals, and some of these regions suffer from looting at an unprecedented scale.

With a view to protecting cultural heritage, the WCO is encouraging effective co-operation and partnership with other international organizations and law enforcement agencies such as the International Council of Museums (ICOM), UNESCO and INTERPOL, aimed at exchanging information and preventing this illegal activity. To accomplish this mission the WCO relies on the competencies and daily efforts of Member Customs administrations, as well as on its Regional Intelligence Liaison Offices, the RILO network.

An example of these cooperative efforts is the CENcomm based electronic information exchange platform codenamed ARCHEO, managed by the WCO. This network is dedicated to the prevention of cultural heritage fraud and brings together professionals and experts committed to the protection of cultural heritage through facilitating the identification of suspected items with the goal of maximising efficient and effective enforcement in this area.

Cooperation with relevant stakeholders is at the heart of the WCO Council Resolution on the Role of Customs in Preventing Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Objects adopted in July 2016. The Resolution outlines a set of concrete measures in order to assist the global Customs community to counter illicit trafficking of cultural objects. Besides calling for more cooperation with relevant stakeholders such as experts in the field and cultural institutions, it asks countries to conduct an analysis aimed at identifying and closing the gaps in current legislation and techniques. It also encourages Customs authorities to introduce export certificates or to revise existing certificates in line with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-WCO Model Export Certificate.


Model Export Certificate for Cultural Objects [en] [es] [ar] [ch] [ru]

Awareness raising campaign