Fight against Illicit Traffic

The fight against illicit traffic in cultural property is one of ICOM’s priority programmes.

The promotion of professional ethics and the protection of collections

Museums must be the first players in the fight against illicit traffic by adopting scrupulous rules regarding the acquisition and transfer of collections, in compliance with the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums.

ICOM’s International Committees contribute to this mission by training their staff in heritage protection, by providing them with the tools to inventory their collections and by publishing international safety guidelines.

Illicit Trafficking Workshops

Fruitful international cooperation

Thanks to its international network of professionals and its expertise, the International Council of Museums is recognized by many national and international organizations as one of the main players in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

Cooperation between ICOM and its partners includes both the exchange of information and expertise, the joint organization of awareness-raising campaigns, the development of training programs for museum professionals, police and customs officers, as well as the distribution of ICOM publications relating to illicit traffic among these professionals.



National agencies

Reference tools

The international awareness efforts carried out by ICOM and its partners on the need to protect the cultural heritage of peoples against illicit traffic are tending to bear fruit.

The international Object Identification (Object ID) standard facilitates the identification of endangered objects. The Hundred Missing Objects collection reports pieces stolen from a given area of ​​the world.

Red Lists define categories of objects at risk in a country or region of the world. These tools are distributed to police services and customs around the world via INTERPOL and the WCO, but also to museums, merchants and auction houses.

Object ID

Red Lists 

The Hundred Missing Objects collection

Internet and Interpol come to the rescue of African cultural heritage


The “red list”, an online presentation of the most sought-after pieces of African archeology in the world, set up by the International Council of Museums, has just allowed several important seizures in France and the Netherlands


Six billion francs: this is, according to several studies, the annual income from the illegal trade in cultural property. The most important world traffic after that of drugs. To thwart this criminal enterprise which makes the fortune of a few by plundering the heritage of the whole world, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has decided to make a “red list” available on the Internet.

Its pages are presented as a real wanted poster. We discover fourteen centuries-old African art objects, all missing. These pieces are real treasures of African heritage. However, they were either stolen from poorly supervised Nigerian museums, or torn from archaeological sites in Mali, or finally sold to the highest bidder in Côte d’Ivoire, Chad or Cameroon. They are mainly found in North America and Europe, in auction houses where their value is estimated at hundreds of thousands of francs.

While the price of these pieces is soaring on the so-called “primitive” art market, a large majority of national museums are exhausted by reminding them that their export to our countries is illegal. These works must not be sold or bought, but urgently seized and returned to their culture of origin. Determined to mark a big blow, it was last April that ICOM presented its notice of search on the Web.

Its objective: “Alert museums, art dealers, police and customs on the systematic looting and theft of which certain types of heritage are victims.” One of the vocations of this non-governmental organization, bringing together museum professionals from 145 countries, is to fight against the illicit trafficking and theft of cultural property. Its efforts are carried out jointly with the Association of African Museums (Africom) and Unesco. “The” red list “was born in 1997 from an international meeting of museums on the protection of African cultural heritage”, recalls Valérie Jullien, head of communication at ICOM. Of all the continents, Africa is indeed the most exposed to looters – and its parts, the most in demand in Europe.

The problem is that this criminal phenomenon has never reached such magnitude. It would take entire directories to list the thousands of works of art stolen each year in Africa. Why did you focus on only fourteen pieces? “The list is by no means exhaustive, summarizes Valérie Jullien. It actually presents eight categories of objects particularly exposed to looting. The distribution of this list on the Internet has two results: firstly, to raise awareness among professionals but also the wider public by drawing attention to the looting of archaeological sites, and to allow the identification of pieces taken illegally from their country of origin. in order to seize them.”

Nok terracottas, Ifé terracottas and bronzes and Esie stone statues (Nigeria); terracotta, bronze and pottery from the Niger Valley (Mali); terracottas, bronzes, pottery and statuettes (Niger, Burkina Faso); stone statues from northern Burkina Faso and surrounding regions; terracottas from northern Ghana and Ivory Coast; terracotta and so-called Sao bronzes (Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria)… If, for the moment, the enumeration remains there, the results of this hunt on the Web were felt as soon as it was published. With sometimes unexpected effects. “There have been seizures of pieces of this type in the Netherlands, at the Maastricht Antiques Fair, and in France”, specifies the head of communication at ICOM. In April, a seizure at the auction house of the Hotel Drouot in Paris has withdrawn from auction seventeen terracottas which are suspected to come from looted sites in Niger and Nigeria. Both countries filed a complaint.

A tense situation

The story could have ended with the return of the coins. However, this case occurs in the midst of controversy with France, after the acquisition by the new “Museum of First Arts”, in Paris, of three Nok sculptures also appearing on the “red list”. They come from looting in Nigeria, and are exhibited today in the Louvre. A situation that certainly does not set a good example. It is even embarrassing, since it calls into question the acquisition process supported for two years by President Jacques Chirac in person. ICOM, Africom but also Unesco are currently asking for explanations from the French government.