Colombia Artifact Smuggling Case Shows Links Between Drugs and Culture

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Spain has returned 691 indigenous artifacts to Colombia that were smuggled out of the country by a drug trade money launderer in a real life tale that echoes the plot of international bestselling novel “The Goldfinch.”

The pre-Columbian art pieces — which included funeral urns, musical instruments and ceramic sculptures — were slipped out of Colombia by a renowned money launderer, whose services were employed by drug traffickers, the Colombian Embassy in Madrid told the BBC.

The artifacts had been seized by Spanish authorities in a 2003 anti-drug operation, reported RT. They were held in the Museum of America in Madrid during the proceedings, then handed over to Colombia following a Spanish court ruling in June, which came as the result of a long legal dispute over ownership rights,reported the BBC. Many of the items dated back to 1400 BC.

InSight Crime Analysis

There is often a surprising overlap between the highly specialized criminal worlds of artifact and art theft and the underworld heavyweights in the drug trade, a connection that recently featured in Donna Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Goldfinch,” in which a youth removes a famous work of art from the wreckage of a bombed museum and the painting is later traded between international drug dealers.

As in the book, theft of cultural products can be directly tied to drug trafficking, as a way to launder drug money — as may have occurred in this case — or as collateral in drug deals, since works of art are relatively easy to smuggle and valuable on international markets. In Mexico, the theft of religious artifacts has become an important earner for criminal groups that have diversified their activities, with 42 percent of such thefts reportedly linked to organized crime

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

However, even as a standalone crime, the theft and trafficking of ancient artifacts and valuable works of art is a widespread and lucrative trade. Hundreds of thousands of art crimes occur each year, while the trade in cultural artifacts is estimated to be worth up to $8 billion annually. According to Ecuadorean authorities, a single ancient artifact from the country can be worth as much as $8,000 on the international black market.

Once trafficked, stolen cultural pieces are difficult to reclaim because of a lack of adequate legislation in some countries, and buyers who claim ignorance.

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