In 2020, the rate of illegal excavations of cultural heritage increased across the world beyond pre-pandemic levels, according to Interpol’s “Assessing Crimes Against Cultural Property” report. Africa saw an increase in offenses related to digs, up from 44 incidents in 2019 to 153 in 2020. The starkest increase occurred in Asia and the South Pacific, from 42 to 1,563.
In total, more than 35,000 items were reported stolen across the world—the majority of them classified as numismatic pieces, which include coins and other currencies. Interpol said that archeological sites are given less official protection than other heritage sites such as museums. The report also suggests that sites located in conflict zones are especially vulnerable to illicit excavations.
In a statement, Corrado Catesi, coordinator of Interpol’s art-theft unit, said, “The Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on criminals involved in the illicit traffic of cultural property, but did not in any way diminish the demand for these items or the occurrence of such crimes. As countries implemented travel restrictions and other restrictive measures, criminals were forced to find other ways to steal, illegally excavate and smuggle cultural property.”
Art heists at museums accounted for a smaller portion of the illegal activity than usual, the survey found. Crimes involving museum property decreased from 2019 to 2020 in every region except for North and South America.
Interpol’s survey suggested that restrictions placed on institutions, as well as an increase in working from home, may have made for unusually limited opportunities to stage heists. But, according to Interpol, there’s still reason for concern over organized groups that carry out cultural property offenses.
The survey said that such syndicates remain at the ready to steal in troves when opportunity strikes, sometimes even on commission by collectors seeking specific objects. In May, Europol, the European Union’s law-enforcement agency, and the World Customs Organization joined forces during Operations Athena II and Pandora IV to target networks of art and antiquity traffickers. The operations, which involved 103 countries spanning Afghanistan to Spain to Italy, have so far recovered over 19,000 objects.