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This time it is a joint venture based in Mexico titled Protege tu legado (Protect your legacy), whose objective is “to raise awareness about the implications and risks of this crime at the community level and ways to prevent and combat it to safeguard cultural heritage”.

“…the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) indicates that crime is correlated to terrorism financing, organized crime, illicit trafficking of drugs and firearms, money laundering, and corruption,” UNESCO’s official release continues - the use of the word “correlated’ is an interesting development.

Next, while acknowledging that “there are no exact figures due to the difficulty of discovering and monitoring these illicit activities”, it qualifies this by adding that:

- The Museums Association estimates that profits from the illicit trade of antiquities range from $225m to $3bn annually.

- The UK Metropolitan Police and INTERPOL calculate that these same profits amount to between $300m and $6bn annually.

- The International Monetary Fund noted that the sum available for money laundering through the art market was equivalent to 2.7% of the world’s GDP in 2009, or $1.6bn.

While these figures may sound impressive, they are less so when their sources are revealed.

The first two have long been known, dating back to 2000 and the UK Parliamentary review conducted into cultural heritage crime. The exact details surrounding them and what they refer to have been available in the Facts & Figures sections of the websites of both the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) and the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) for some time.

Paragraph 5 of the Facts & Figures Appendix refers to UNESCO’s earlier misuse of these statistics in 2011.

The Museums Association figures (now 23 years old) referred to all art and antiques, not antiquities, and were attributed (via the 2000 report by Brodie, Doole and Watson Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material) to the November 24, 1990, Independent article (now 33 years old) by Geraldine Norman, ‘Sale of the Centuries’.

That article is reprinted in paragraph 2 of the ADA Appendix and gives no such figures. In other words, the Museums Association claim has no basis whatsoever.

The UK Metropolitan Police and INTERPOL figures quoted come from the same UK parliamentary hearings, the relevant minutes, including explanatory footnotes, of which are also published in paragraph 5 of the ADA Appendix in full.

As can be seen from the official Parliamentary record - the detailed primary source - the figures UNESCO now quotes are guestimates based on insurance company losses up to the year 2000 involving jewellery, silver, works of art, collectables, antiquities, household and business assets such as computers.

It is also estimated that around half the figure quoted results from domestic thefts such as burglaries, with additional losses from National Trust properties, English Heritage and churches.

In other words, these 23-year-old statistics have nothing to do with the looting and trafficking of antiquities at all.

UNESCO gives as its third statistic the sum of $1.6bn - equivalent to 2.7% of global GDP in 2009 - available for money laundering through the art market. This is a starkly odd claim, because that would have made global GDP at the time less than $60bn, when it was actually almost $61 trillion. So, the correct percentage would be 0.000026% of global GDP.

Such a basic error in UNESCO’s official release points to little care being taken in the fact-checking department.

Muddling up the IMF claims

It is also odd that the embedded link in the English language release takes the reader to the Spanish version of a September 2016 UNODC guidelines for preventing cultural property trafficking rather than the English version.

On page 8 of the UNODC guidelines, however, all becomes clear, as it shows that this document and its footnotes are the unchecked source for both the Museums Association figures and the police figures.

Page 45 of the September 2016 UNODC report quotes the IMF figure as $1.6 trillion, then correctly 2.7% of global GDP in 2009. However, it is clear that whoever lifted this statistic for the UNESCO release misread this part of the report.

The $1.6 trillion does not refer to money available for laundering through the art market (then worth around $39.5bn globally), but money available for laundering through the global financial system. So, again, nothing to do with antiquities or the art market.

Why is UNESCO relying on inaccurate data that in one instance is 23 years old and wrongly based on a newspaper article that is 33 years old? Why is it not checking its facts properly? Why is it spreading misinformation in this way? Why is it not dedicating resources to acquiring accurate, up-to-date information rather than simply pulling out quotes from old reports that it has not checked?

What appears to be extraordinary incompetence in drawing up the UNESCO media release has significant potential repercussions for the legitimate art market.

Every initiative like this is later used as ‘proof’ that further regulation is required for the art market.

With the bogus nature of the data here exposed for what it is, UNESCO is left with nothing solid to justify developing this initiative.

This is far from being the sole example of such poor standards of behaviour from UNESCO.

After publishing the groundless claim (revoked after much criticism 18 months later) that the annual value of cultural property trafficking was $10bn, and the exposure of its 2020 campaign against the art market, The Real Price of Art, as almost completely fraudulent, at the very least it needs to review its research protocols to ensure its data is reliably sourced.

Keep an even hand

As I told UNESCO’s assistant director-general of culture in an email last week, his organisation has a vital role to play in the protection and enhancement of global cultural heritage, and public confidence in its abilities and even-handed reliability is essential to its success.

I have asked him to conduct an urgent review of UNESCO’s approach to data collection and research. Let’s hope he listens.

Ivan Macquisten

Adviser for the ADA and IADAA