Courtesy International Council of Museums
The images above show kinds of antiquities deemed at risk of being illicitly trafficked, but the objects themselves have not been stolen. From left: A wooden ceremonial stool from the Taíno culture of the Caribbean in the 11th to 15th centuries; a terracotta Nok head from Nigeria; a Paracas mantle or cloak from Peru in about 200 B.C.; a shabti or funerary figurine from Egypt in the 13th century B.C.
LONDON -- Ancient statues from Nigeria and Cambodia, colorful cloaks from Peru, ceremonial furniture from Haiti before Columbus and clay tablets inscribed with writing thousands of years old: The illegal trade in looted cultural artifacts is vast, poorly policed and highly profitable.
But NBC News has learned that a new international body to gather "intelligence" about the illicit sale of some of the world's most beautiful and historic objects is set to be established.
Groups like the Taliban and al-Qaida are thought to raise funds in this way with suggestions that smuggling art and antiquities is the world's third most common form of trafficking after drugs and weapons, worth $6 billion or more a year.
But global policing body Interpol's response to these often-made claims is that they simply do not know.
The new body, to be called the International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods, would try to improve cooperation between Interpol and law enforcement agencies, world cultural body UNESCO, research institutions and other groups, and establish the "best practice" to fight this form of crime.
It would also create a database of publicly available information, and seek to improve monitoring and research.
The France-based International Council of Museums is behind the new body, but is waiting for formal approval of funding from the European Commission.
'Invaluable scientific proof'
An ICOM official, who asked not to be named in line with the organization's policy, said that stealing culturally or historically important objects was "much worse" than ordinary theft.
"The loss is not only felt by one person, but by a whole society. The loss will also be experienced by several generations of people who feel deprived of a part of their history and cultural past," the official told NBC News. "For experts and scholars, it also marks the disappearance of invaluable scientific proof of parts of the world's history."
"ICOM felt it needed a lot more reliable information and recent analyses of trends, what one would call the need for 'intelligence' when fighting organized criminal activity," the official added.
Noah Charney, founding director of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, told NBC News that art and antiquities crime was an "inherently international type of crime," and it needed a better global response.
Police across the world generally performed "very poorly" and it was an area that "tends to be underfunded," Charney said, partly because some authorities view it as something from the film "The Thomas Crown Affair" rather than a serious problem.
Charney said that law enforcement agencies' recovery rates of stolen artifacts generally ranged from as low as 1.5 percent to 10 percent for Italy's Carabinieri, who he said were "by far the best" agency in the world at dealing with art crime.
He estimated that about 75 percent of art crime involved antiquities. Valuable paintings tended to be sold by criminals for 10 percent of their auction value, he said, but antiquities could be sold openly for the full price with a forged provenance to get around global laws.
"Most of the objects are coming directly from the earth or the sea, so they'll never appear on a stolen art register," he said. "You'll never know what was in a tomb opened by tomb raiders."
ICOM produces a number of "red lists" detailing the kinds of artifacts that tend to be stolen in different parts of the world, partly to help law enforcement agencies catch smugglers.
Here are 10 examples -- with photographs of similar works that have not been stolen and are mainly held by museums:
Ancient Nigerian statues looted
Terracotta Nok statues, which date back to the 9th century BC in Nigeria, are "plentifully available on the art market," according to ICOM.
National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.
A terracotta Nok head from Nigeria. Nok art like this piece, which is not stolen but is illustrative of the kind of artifacts which can be, dates back to the 9th century B.C.
The problem is many are unidentified and some are likely to have been ultimately obtained illegally.
"Demand from the European and American art markets, combined with speculation, leads today to looting of archaeological sites, causing irrevocable destruction and final loss of information," according to ICOM's website.
The first head was rediscovered at the village of Nok in 1928 by chance and since then statues with similar characteristics have been found at 20 different sites on Nigeria's Bauchi plateau.
"These are heads of whole figurines, mainly human effigies, but occasionally representations of animals (in most cases snakes)," ICOM says. "The size may vary, some heads being life-size, whereas other full-length figurines are only a dozen centimeters high (4.7 inches)."
Cloaks of many colors from Peru
The richly decorated cloaks of the Paracas culture and its Nasca successor, which existed from about 400 BC to 700 AD on the southern coast of modern-day Peru, are another target for thieves.
The cotton mantles, which tend to be found preserved within funeral bundles, feature intense colors and are embroidered with motifs such as stylized jaguars, fish, fruit and flowers.
"However, the most important motif is the profile of a human figure whose head faces the viewer, with a mask and a hairpiece with some type of animal element (usually a feline with snake appendages), weapons and a human head fastened by the hair," according to ICOM's website.
The cloak pictured, seen in a photograph taken by the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Peru, is about 8.7 feet by 5.1 feet and dates from about 200 BC during the early Nasca period.
Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú, Peru
This Paracas mantle or cloak, dating from about 200 B.C., is about 8-and-a-half feet long. Others like this one, which is not stolen, are deemed at risk of being looted and sold illegally.
Poverty-stricken Haiti losing 'rich' heritage
The "exceptionally rich" cultural heritage of Haiti is "severely affected by illicit traffic" that is fueled by "international demand" and "extreme poverty," ICOM said.
Mariano Hernandez/Fundación García Arévalo
A ceremonial "duho" or stool from the Taino culture of the Caribbean, dating from 800 to 1500 A.D. This has not been stolen, but there is general concern about the trade in looted art from poverty-stricken Haiti.
"The earthquake of January 12, 2010, has rendered the situation particularly dire, leaving Haitian heritage sites unprotected and vulnerable to looting, theft, and destruction," its website adds.
Pre-Columbian artifacts that are deemed by ICOM to be at risk of theft include items such as stone axes, pestles and sculpted heads, ceramic bowls and plates, shell ornaments and furniture such as the ceremonial stool or "duho" pictured, which dates from 800 to 1500 AD. Like the other objects pictured, this illustrative example was not stolen.
"It should be noted that this type of object is common to all countries of Taïno origin, such as the Dominican Republic. The main characteristics of the duho, namely a carved wooden seat with a high back, can also be found in Africa," according to a statement emailed to NBC News by the ICOM official.
The Taïno people lived in several Caribbean islands and greeted Christopher Columbus when he arrived in the Americas in 1492. Millions are thought to have died because of European diseases to which they had no immunity, clashes with the Europeans and other causes associated with colonization.
Artifacts from after the arrival of Columbus such as Voodoo sculptures and jewelry; cannons, pistols and slave chains form the 18th century; and fine art paintings and sculpture from the 18th to 20th centuries are also included on the red list for Haiti.
China Cultural Heritage Information and Consultation Center, China.
A handwritten letter from a literatus dating from China's Ming Dynasty. Old letters and other handwriting from China, such as this unstolen example, are considered to be art.
Letters from the Ming Dynasty
Old letters and government and other documents from China "have always been considered as works of art, and as such are highly coveted," the ICOM statement said. They are "very fragile and vulnerable to destruction."
The letters date from as long ago as the Zhou Dynasty in 1046 BC, through the Han and Ming dynasties, to 1949, when the Communist Party took power in China.
The documents can be handwritten, carved or printed on a variety of materials such as bamboo, silk, paper and wood.
The letter pictured is described as a "handwritten letter from a literatus" from the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644.
Museo del Oro, Banco de la República de Colombia/Clark M. Rodríguez.
A mummy dating from 600 to 1600 A.D. from Colombia. Antiquities thieves loot human remains like this one, which has not been stolen, the world over.
Dead bodies and skulls
Preserved dead bodies, human skulls and other body parts retain a certain fascination for some criminals and collectors with little regard for the scruples of their suppliers.
The mummy pictured was made by the Muisca people of Colombia and dates from 600 to 1600 AD, according to the ICOM website.
"Human remains per se are also a type of object very much coveted by those interested in Egyptian antiquities, but also in Haitian Voodoo-related objects that are partly made of human remains (skulls)," the ICOM statement said.
On Nov. 6, Bolivia returned a mummy that was at least 700 years old to Peru. It was seized from antiques traffickers two years ago as a Bolivian citizen tried to ship it to an address in Compiegne, France, in a cardboard box, The Associated Press reported.
Currencies that hold their value
Coins "of all origins are highly sought after," the ICOM statement said, due to the "profitable market" and the ease with which they can be hidden and moved about.
Kabul National Museum & French National Library, Afghanistan
An Indo-Scythian silver coin from the reign of Azes I, 57 to 20 B.C. Ancient coins like this one, which is not stolen, are generally are at risk of being illicitly traded partly because they are small and easily hidden.
Silver Indo-Scythian coins from the reign of Azes I (57 to 20 BC), Indo-Greek coins from the reign of Menander I (165 to 130 BC), gold coins from the Fatimid era in Egypt in AD 1012 and silver, gilded bronze and paper currency from China are all listed on ICOM's website as examples of the kind of artifacts that are stolen and smuggled.
The statement pointed to the seizure of 18,000 coins, along with bronze eagles, pieces of jewelry and other objects -- originating from Bulgaria and dating back to the time of Ancient Greece and Rome -- that were illegally imported into Canada in 2007. They were returned to Bulgaria in June last year.
Iraq's ancient texts lost
Ancient clay tablets with cuneiform writing are among the various cultural artifacts that have been looted from Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
© British Museum, United Kingdom.
A clay proto-cuneiform tablet with early pictographic writing from the end of the 4th millennium B.C. Tablets like this one, which is not stolen, should be treated with caution if offered for sale.
According to ICOM's website, any object with cuneiform or "wedge-shaped" writing on it should be treated as suspicious.
Many of the objects were looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, which houses artifacts dating back to 8,000 BC.
The clay tablets are usually between about 2 and 12 inches long, and can be rectangular, pillow-shaped, square or sometimes round.
"They are usually sun-dried and must be handled with extreme care. If not stored under controlled humidity, they may disintegrate," ICOM says.
"Written clay or stone tablets such as this … tablet frequently resurface during seizures or illegal sales," the ICOM statement said. "As an example, in 2007 a 4,000 year-old Iraqi cuneiform tablet was identified by a German archaeologist on eBay's Swiss website, as they are featured in the Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk."
"The appropriate Swiss authorities were informed and the site stopped the sale minutes before it concluded. Police confiscated the tablet at a storage facility in Zurich," it added.
National Museum of Cambodia, Cambodia
This female divinity carved in sandstone from Cambodia stands just over four feet. Art like this piece, which is not stolen, has been looted for decades.
Such tablets are also "subject to forgeries," the statement said, adding that this was a "a real problem for collectors and museums as the fakes now produced are of very high quality and can easily fool experts, unless scientific testing is done."
Cambodia's treasures looted for years
Statues similar to the 4-foot stone goddess pictured, bronzes, religious documents, ceramics, and a whole range of other artifacts have been looted in Cambodia for decades.
ICOM's Red List for Cambodia said that a "new tide of destruction" began in recent years as thieves targeted prehistoric cemetery sites.
"Cambodia's cultural resources are very important to its people. Their pride in their heritage is symbolized by the choice of depicting the ancient temple of Angkor Wat on the nation's flag," it noted.
Statues from the world-renowned Angkor site are particularly sought after and so have been forged as well as stolen for years.
Other objects on the red list include buffalo-head rings and ceremonial drums from 5th century BC to 5th century AD, ritual objects such as bells, conches and incense burners from the Angkor period from the 9th to 13th centuries AD and items such as decorated iron swords, gongs and cymbals dating from the 14th to 20th centuries.
Centuries-old gold jewelry melted down
Gold jewelry such as this centuries-old Jaguar-head necklace from Iximché in Guatemala has long been prized by looters.
Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, Dirección del Patrimonio Cultural y Natural, Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etn
A Jaguar head necklace from Iximché, Guatemala, dating from 900 to 1524 A.D. Art as beautiful as this unstolen piece can sometimes be looted simply to be melted down.
But sometimes their historic significance -- the necklace pictured dates from between 900 and 1524 AD -- means little to the thieves.
"In some cases, it is not the object itself that is of value to the thief but the material it is made out of. In these cases the piece will be melted or cut into pieces so as to recover as much gold (or silver, precious stones, etc) as possible," the ICOM statement said.
In addition to the necklace, ICOM's website lists an array of treasures from Central America from museums to illustrate the kinds of artifacts are traded illegally.
Egyptian Museum, Egypt / Ahmed Amin
An unstolen limestone shabti or funerary figurine from Egypt, dating from 1279 to 1213 B.C.
These include colorful bowls decorated with paintings of humans, animals, plants and ancient writing; drinking vessels in the shape of people and animals; stamps used to print designs; and musical instruments such as flutes, drums, rattles and whistles.
Ancient statue in a shoebox
Funerary figures from ancient Egypt known as shabti are "in high demand from collectors" and because they are relatively small "can be easily hidden and transported," the ICOM statement said.
In 2011, U.S. Homeland Security officers seized a shabti that was being smuggled inside a shoebox. Other illegal shipments containing the statuettes have been discovered over the past year, leading to their inclusion on the Emergency Red List of Egyptian Cultural Objects at Risk.
Shabtis can be made from wood, Egyptian faience, a type of ceramic, pottery and stone such as limestone.
The statues, which date from 5,200 BC to 332 BC, were of men and women.
The shabti pictured, seen in a photograph taken by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, was found in the tomb of Sennedjem, who lived more than 3,000 years ago, at the cemetery of Deir el-Medina at Thebes.
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