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Brazil makes progress in the fight against the trafficking of cultural goods

In 26th place on the list of nations with the highest theft rates, the country joins the UNESCO heritage protection committee

A mask from the Tapirapé ethnic group, made with macaw feathers, is one of the cultural assets targeted by criminals


In 2004, two people pretended to be researchers and consulted, on a number of occasions, iconographic works from the collection of the National Library of Rio de Janeiro, and stole over 100 pages from albums of prints. The following year, during a three-month strike at the institution, books of photographs and drawings also went missing. The crimes have never been totally solved by the police, despite part of the items being recovered from auction houses and private collections. The theft from the National Library is part of a billion-dollar operation: the illicit sale of cultural property. The NETwork and digital platform for Cultural Heritage Enhancing and Rebuilding (NETCHER) project, funded by the European Union, estimates that this type of crime is responsible for moving between US$3 and US$15 billion each year globally. At the end of May, due to its increasing interest in debates and actions related to the protection of cultural heritage, Brazil became a member, for the first time, of the Subsidiary Committee of the 1970 Convention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), considered one of the main international legal instruments for the protection of cultural property. Composed of representatives from 18 countries, elected for four-year mandates, the Committee is the executive agency of the 1970 Convention, responsible for its implementation and monitoring.

In the past 10 years, discussions held within the scope of UNESCO have sought to establish ethical parameters for the international cultural property market. “The aim has been to find common definitions about what type of object with historical value can or cannot be sold by auction houses and collectors,” explains historian Bruno Zetola, a diplomat from the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responsible for cultural issues in the Brazilian delegation to UNESCO. In a debate marked by polarized positions, nations such as Mexico take a radical stance and argue that the sale of antiques is an unethical practice by nature. Mexicans consider that certificates of origin issued by auction houses are insufficient to ensure the legal sale of goods, since the items could have been stolen from their territory of origin at some point in the sales process. “In this debate, Brazil has stood out for adopting a moderate stance, defending that combating the trafficking of cultural property is not incompatible with the arts and antiques market,” adds the diplomat. Additionally, according to Zetola, while European countries tend to separate actions aimed at fighting the illicit trade from others related to the repatriation of property, Brazil considers strategies for dealing with both problems together. “These two positions helped the country enter the 1970 Convention Committee,” analyzes the diplomat. According to him, UNESCO has, in total, five committees for protecting the cultural heritage of humanity.

NationalmuseetTupinambá cloak on display at the National Museum of DenmarkNationalmuseet

Today, fossils are the most stolen cultural assets in Brazil (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 301), along with sacred objects, and rare and antique books and documents, according to Zetola. “In general, fossils are lost to other countries due to scientific interest, whereas pages from rare books and documents can be sold at high prices at auctions. None of these materials are usually inventoried and offer easy handling, making the control of theft and illegal sales difficult,” says the diplomat. He explains that to be protected by the Convention, it is necessary that the assets be inventoried by a cultural, museological, or research institution, which does not happen, for example, with fossils illegally extracted from archaeological sites. Despite that, jurist Anauene Dias Soares, an expert on works of art accredited by the Special Department of Federal Revenue of Brazil, clarifies that the protection of fossils is provided for in articles 215 and 216 of the Federal Constitution. “Fossils are public assets and, therefore, inalienable; they cannot be in the possession of or be the property of any other State that is not Brazil,” she explains.

The 1970 Convention applies to elements removed from their locations of origin since that year, not acting retroactively to cover previous years. “For countries that were colonized, this is a complex situation,” analyzes the diplomat. This is because the Convention does not cover the transfer of ownership of countless objects of Indigenous, African, and Asian material culture removed in colonial contexts (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 295). This is the case, for example, of the only six Tupinambá cloaks from the 16th century that were preserved. Sought after by museological institutions, the pieces are currently in museums in Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland

Despite not belonging to an International treaty, like the 1970 Convention, the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin, created in 1978, supports member States in the resolution of disputes involving the return or restitution of cultural property. “The body deals with cultural objects lost as a result of foreign or colonial occupation, or after a theft committed before the 1970 Convention came into effect. Its mission is to offer recommendations and aid negotiations between countries, and encourage the signing of agreements,” informs Isabel de Paula, coordinator of the UNESCO Culture sector in Brazil. Based on the actions of this committee, for example, in January 2020, Germany returned the Kueka stone to Venezuela, considered sacred by the Pemón Indigenous community. The object was taken to Berlin before 1970 to be displayed in an exhibition and did not return to the Latin American country. It had been on display in Tiergarten park, in the German capital, since 1998. “Besides multilateral normative instruments, the countries usually propose national legislations or establish bilateral agreements, with focus on the joint action to combat the illicit trade. Brazil, for example, maintains bilateral agreements with countries such as Spain, Peru, and Bolivia,” informs Paula.

National Museum / Roosevelt MotaObjects of African religious art, such as the sculpture of Xangô, Marajoara urns…National Museum / Roosevelt Mota

Brazil occupies 26th position on the list of countries with the highest rates of thefts and low recovery rates for these items. Besides customs, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the Navy, two public agencies are mostly responsible for authorizing and inspecting the circulation of cultural objects: the Brazilian Institute of Museums (IBRAM) for musealized works of art, that is, which make up museum collections and that were produced in or introduced into Brazil before 1889; and the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) for archaeological pieces, works of art, documents, and books produced in or introduced into Brazil before 1889. In the case of paleontological assets, Hermínio Ismael de Araújo Júnior, president of the Brazilian Society of Paleontology (SBP), explains that, currently, no Brazilian agency inspects the circulation and transport of these pieces in the country. “This is one of our legal weaknesses,” he says. According to him, scientific studies and fieldwork done with fossils in Brazil should be communicated to the National Mining Agency (ANM). In relation to the profile of pieces that are under their responsibility, IPHAN currently registers the disappearance of 1,700 items, with sacred objects, such as crucifixes and crowns, representing the majority of them and accounting for 48% of the total volume.

Museum Of Earth Sciences / Rafael Costa da Silva… and fossils are targets for illegal trade in BrazilMuseum Of Earth Sciences / Rafael Costa da Silva

The list of missing pieces, however, may be much larger. Librarian Daniela Eugênia Moura de Albuquerque, who is doing a PhD in information science at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), explains that IPHAN only counts assets listed in its inventory of missing pieces. “Additionally, its database has not been updated since 2018 and has gaps in the filling out of fundamental metadata for the identification of lost objects, including weight, height, and the authorship of some cultural assets,” states the researcher. In her research, Albuquerque found that, of the missing assets inventoried by IPHAN, 131 had been recovered since 1990, the majority being religious art from Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Minas Gerais, and Ceará. “Only eight states were contemplated with these recoveries,” she says.

Another problem, in Albuquerque’s opinion, is the lack of knowledge of society about the importance of preserving cultural heritage. “When people have awareness of the relevance of missing pieces, they mobilize. This helps to prevent thefts and aids with the return of stolen assets,” she adds. In her PhD research, she analyzes the case of the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora Rainha dos Anjos, a church in Petrolina, Pernambuco State, built between 1858 and 1860 and which gave rise to the urban settlement of the municipality. The church had an image of Nossa Senhora Rainha dos Anjos [Our Lady Queen of Angels], the patron saint of the city, which was stolen in 1970. “The event created a great social commotion, causing the political and police authorities to invest in the search for the image of the saint,” says the researcher. The church even produced a replica to try to appease the dismay of the population, but people did not conform and popular pressure continued. In 1980, the image was found with a private collector in Alagoas, who claimed to not know of its illicit origin, but who was arrested and investigated.

Brazilian National LibraryRare objects from the Brazilian National Library collection: a copy of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1462, first edition of the comic book O Tico-Tico, from 1905, and the Carta de abertura dos portos, from 1808Brazilian National Library

In Brazil, one of the first records of a missing work involves the collection of the National Library. A deposit for the country’s bibliographic and documentary heritage, the institution was created from the collection of the Royal Library of Portugal and today has over 9 million pieces. Librarian Alex da Silveira, coordinator of the National Library Foundation (FBN), identified that in 1884 friar Camilo de Montserrat (1818–1870), one of the first directors of the National Library, registered the disappearance of the first edition of the work Marília de Dirceu, written by poet Tomás Antônio Gonzaga (1744–1810). The book was printed in Lisbon in 1772. The National Library collection, which includes rarities such as the Gutenberg Bible — a copy printed in 1462 by Johannes Gutenberg (1400–1468) — has always been sought after by collectors and sellers of works of art. “Our entire collection is coveted by some type of collector. For example, first edition comic books interest a specific profile of buyer, whereas rare books, special editions, cartographic material, and manuscripts can be sold at auction houses abroad,” he informs.

In relation to the thefts registered in 2004 and 2005, mentioned at the beginning of this article, Silveira says that a section of the photography collection that is still missing was part of the Empress Thereza Christina (1822–1889) collection, donated by Emperor Dom Pedro II (1825–1891) and nominated by UNESCO as a Memory of the World (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 294). Items chosen to integrate this UNESCO program are considered as heritage of humanity. Awareness surrounding the seriousness of the events led the institution to act more closely with the Federal Police. The joint effort enabled the recovery of some of the stolen objects, including drawings by German artists Friedrich Hagedorn (1814–1889) and Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802–1858), and Brazilian painter and designer José Wasth Rodrigues (1891–1957), identified in the auction house of auctioneer Leone (1934–2016), as well as prints by Emil Bauch (1823–1874), Louis Buvelot (1814–1888), Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), and drawings by Franz Keller-Leuzinger (1835–1890). The drawings by Keller and a print by Moreau were in the Brasiliana collection of Itaú Cultural, in São Paulo. The works were located from letters written in 2017 by Laéssio Oliveira, known as “the greatest thief of rare books in Brazil,” in which he confesses to the theft. Sold to the collector Ruy Souza e Silva, the pieces were later bought by Itaú Cultural. Jailed on a number of occasions, the story of Oliveira is told in the documentary Letters to a Book Thief (2018), directed by Carlos Juliano Barros and Caio Cavechini.

Antônio Gaudério / FolhapressPieces of religious art stolen from historical churches in Minas Gerais recovered by the Civil PoliceAntônio Gaudério / Folhapress

Robberies and thefts of objects in public and private preservation spaces, looting of artifacts and works of art during armed conflicts and military occupations, illegal exportation and importation of artifacts, and the trafficking of authentic or counterfeit cultural assets are considered to be among the main activities of illegal trade, comparable to the sale of drugs and guns. In 2020, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) seized over 854,000 cultural objects that were circulating illegally around the world, including numismatic pieces (coins, money, and medals), paintings, sculptures, archaeological items, and bibliographic assets. More than half of these items were identified in Europe. Between 2019 and 2020, INTERPOL also detected an increase in illicit excavations carried out in Africa (32%), in the Americas (187%), and especially in Asia and the South Pacific (3,812%). “These thefts are causing the dilapidation of cultural heritage in the world, including Brazil,” warns historian Rodrigo Christofoletti, of the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF). He clarifies that cultural assets can be trafficked by gangs with knowledge of the art market, but also by communities that depend on the sale of items obtained in illegal excavations to survive.

A third profile involves mafias and terrorist organizations, which negotiate these objects to launder money or to fund criminal activities. According to the UNESCO book from 2020, in 2011 the Islamic State began using social media networks such as Facebook to sell objects looted in Syria and Iraq, thereby funding the expansion of their activities. Because of this type of practice, the social network banned the negotiation of historical artifacts through its platform in 2022. Created in 2017, Resolution no. 2,347 of the UN Security Council formally recognizes the link between terrorism and the trafficking of cultural property.

Brazilian National LibraryA watercolor by Franz Keller-Leuzinger (right, above) and work signed by designer Emil Bauch and printer Frederico Kaus were stolen from the Brazilian National LibraryBrazilian National Library

“The destination of much of the trafficked property is usually the large art markets of western countries, especially the USA and European nations,” says Paula, of UNESCO. According to her, some middle-income regions, such as Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey, can be both the source as well as the destination for the property, because of the presence of a reasonable number of collectors and traders. Additionally, these locations are often also transport routes between the source and destination countries. “Looted property can be sold by private collectors. However, it often ends up being acquired inadvertently by cultural and research institutions, which has led to many agreements for the return and restitution to the institutions or countries of origin,” says Paula. This is the case, for example, of the stolen works identified in the Itaú Cultural collection. They were returned to the National Library, after their illicit origin was proven.

Based on the unprecedented survey about Brazil carried out by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a Red List was produced that lists the types of objects at greater risk of trafficking, through a catalog with photos and details of each one. Religious art, fossils, maps, rare books, and ethnographic pieces are the most sought-after items, according to Soares, of the Special Department of Federal Revenue of Brazil and one of the authors of the study. The jurist, who is doing a PhD at the University of Brasília (UnB), explains that pieces are included on the Red List based on certain specifications. “They need to be sought after by international markets and have legal support for protection internationally and in Brazil, as well as being at risk of illicit trade,” she details. ICOM has published red lists since 2000, mapping categories of threatened cultural property across the world. A new feature of the Brazilian edition, according to the jurist, is the bibliographic and ethnographic assets, and the objects of African religious art. “When cultural property is lost, part of the country’s cultural heritage is also lost,” adds Soares.

Historical looting

Nicolas Economou / Nurphoto via Getty ImagesThe Parthenon Marbles on display in the British Museum: Greece has been trying to recover the sculptures since 1832Nicolas Economou / Nurphoto via Getty Images

The sale of cultural property is not a new phenomenon. Historian Rodrigo Christofoletti of the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF) recalls what is considered one of the most emblematic cases of the misappropriation of artifacts from one culture by another: the story of the Parthenon Marbles. At the start of the 19th century, the collection of Greek sculptures over 2,500 years old was looted by Thomas Bruce, also known as Lord Elgin (1776–1841), then British ambassador in Constantinople, and taken to Great Britain. Today, they make up the collection of the British Museum, but Greece has demanded their return since 1832. For decades, the British government justified itself claiming that Greece does not have an adequate location to store the pieces, which represent more than half of the preserved sculptures from the decoration of the Parthenon, on the Acropolis of Athens. In response to this allegation, in 2009, the Museum of the Acropolis was reopened after a renovation and reserved a large room to house the sculptures. Nevertheless, at the beginning of 2023, British authorities rejected a new request from the Greek government, with the justification that their legislation prohibited the return of ancient treasures to their places of origin. Bruno Zetola, a diplomat from Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responsible for cultural issues in the Brazilian delegation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), notes that the negotiations were reopened recently and that now “there is an expectation that the parties will be able to promote the return of the marbles to Greece.”

Scientific articles
CHRISTOFOLETTI, R. & ACERBI, V. S. Brazil on the circuit of international cultural relations: Return and devolution of ethnographic goods. In: CHRISTOFOLETTI, R & OLENDER, M. World Heritage Patinas: Actions, Alerts, and Risks. Springer International Publishing, 2021.
SOARES, A. D. & VILLARROEL, E. I. Brazil’s International Cultural Heritage Obligations and the Potential Use of Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms for Illicit Trafficking Disputes. Santander Art and Culture Law Review, 2021.

50 anos de luta contra o tráfico ilícito de bens culturais. UNESCO – Biblioteca Digital, 2020.

False trades: uncovering the scale and scope of trafficking in cultural property: Knowledge gaps and future directions for research. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 2022.
Questions and Answers on the illegal import of cultural goods used to finance terrorism. European Union, 2017.