Police seize 19,000 stolen artefacts in international art trafficking crackdown

101 suspects arrested and rare cultural treasures recovered in huge global investigation

Spanish police recovered a unique Tumaco gold mask. Photograph: Interpol

Two huge international police operations targeting the trade in stolen artworks and archaeological artefacts have led to the arrest of 101 people and the recovery of more than 19,000 items, including a pre-Columbian gold mask, a carved Roman lion and thousands of ancient coins.

A Menaion from 1760 was seized in Romania as well as coins. Photograph: Interpol

The joint initiatives – which involved officers from Interpol, Europol, the World Customs Organization and many national police forces – focused on the criminal networks that steal from museums, plunder archaeological sites and take advantage of the chaos in war-afflicted countries to loot their cultural treasures.

Details of the two concurrent investigations carried out last autumn are emerging only now for operational reasons.

Police officers in Spain recovered several rare pre-Columbian objects at Madrid’s Barajas airport, including a unique Tumaco gold mask, gold figurines and pieces of ancient jewellery. All had been illegally acquired by looting in Colombia.

Three traffickers were arrested in Spain, while Colombian police carried out a series of searches in Bogotá, resulting in the confiscation of a further 242 pre-Columbian objects – the largest such seizure in the country’s history.

Colombian authorities retrieved 242 objects. Photograph: Interpol

 

Spain’s Guardia Civil police force said nine people were arrested in the country during the crackdown, and a Roman lion carved in limestone was recovered, as well as a frieze and three Roman columns.

Argentinian federal police seized 2,500 ancient coins, Latvian state police a further 1,375 coins, and Afghan customs officials at Kabul confiscated 971 archaeology best cultural objects bound for Istanbul.

Other items recovered during the operations included fossils, paintings, ceramics and historical weapons.

Cultural objects seized in Italy. Photograph: Interpol

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