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On Trafficking In Cultural Property

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Thomas Mulhall

Cultural property, such as artifacts are frequently coveted by collectors and for that reason, targeted by thieves.

Cultural property is defined as any item of importance to the cultural heritage of a group, society, or nation. Such artifacts are frequently old, valuable, coveted by collectors and for that reason, targeted by thieves.

Trafficking in stolen cultural property is the third most profitable criminal venture behind trafficking in narcotics, and arms. “It’s a 6 to 8 billion dollar a year industry,” said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Thomas Mulhall, who works for the Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations and Repatriations Program. Both agencies are part of the Department of Homeland Security.

The United States is one of the top three destinations for cultural property, says Special Agent Mulhall. “The trade occurs primarily in Hong Kong, London, and the United States, New York being the focus.”

An unbelievable variety of stolen or looted items from all over the world have been intercepted by U.S. agents. They include pre-Columbian pottery, textiles and even human skulls from Latin America; carved relief plaques from an ancient tomb in China; the statue of a temple goddess from Cambodia; gold plaques and jewelry from Afghanistan. There was even a nearly complete, two and a half meter tall, seven meter long skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur from Mongolia.

Homeland Security Investigations has 46 well-trained agents in 46 countries, said “We work closely with our foreign counterparts in those countries, and this is commonly how we receive our referrals, through the victim country making us aware that there’s an item or antiquity that is present in the U.S. or present on the market that they have claim to, that they feel that was illegally removed from their country or was stolen.”

Recovered items are returned to their country of origin.

Dealing in stolen cultural items is a tremendously profitable venture, but it carries a sentence of five years in prison, and a trafficker can be charged on multiple counts for each item, resulting in long prison sentences, said Special Agent Mulhall.

Artifacts that form the cultural heritage of their country of origin are a priceless reflection of its history, its people and its civilization. The United States will cooperate with any country working to recover its national treasures.