Authorities in Ecuador have reported an uptick in reports of stolen historical artifacts, in a sign the highly lucrative transnational crime of antiquities trafficking may be growing in size.
According to figures from the Ecuadorean National Institute of Cultural Patrimony (INPC) reported by El Comercio, while just two thefts were reported in 2012 and none in 2013, the first months of 2014 have seen 17 reports of stolen artifacts (see El Comercio graphic below). The majority of reports are generated by churches, museums or convents, according to an anonymous INPC source.
INPC risk manager Cesar Molina told El Comercio that individual pieces stolen from Ecuador generally fetch between $4,000 and $8,000 on the international black market. According to Molina, in some instances stolen artifacts are sold openly in auction houses in the United States and Europe, and the possibility of reclaiming them is made difficult by a lack of legislation in some countries stipulating that artifacts should be returned if proven stolen. This difficulty is increased by buyers who claim they did not know the piece was stolen and by a lack of witness testimony in many cases.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ecuador
Nevertheless, since 2008 the INPC has repatriated 681 stolen historical artifacts, and applied for the return of nearly 4,000 currently located in Italy. Two artifacts recently recovered within Ecuador were a prominent painting titled "Los negros de Esmeraldas" and a sculpture titled "Apostol," which were stolen from Quito's Hispanic Cultural Institute.
According to El Comercio, the main markets for South American antiquities are the United States, Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, England, Japan and Saudi Arabia.
InSight Crime Analysis
The wealth of historical artifacts in Latin America has long exposed the region to the theft and international trafficking of antiquities. On a global scale, this is a major trade that Interpol says is impossible to put a value on, though a 2011 report from the Center for International Policy says it is worth up to $6.3 billion per year.
Ecuador's case appears to be one sign of the growth of this illicit industry. According to a 2013 report from United Nations heritage body UNESCO (pdf), global sales of both legal and illegal artifacts totaled $40 billion in 1993 and are expected to reach $60 billion over this next decade. UNESCO also states that stolen cultural property often falls into the hands of criminal networks linked to other illegal activities, such as money laundering.
In the face of this challenge, some Latin American countries have made concerted efforts to combat the illegal trade, with Peru praised by UNESCO in March 2014 for its efforts. However, the diversification of criminal portfolios has made cultural property an alluring revenue stream to organized crime, and as noted by Ecuadorean authorities, its nature makes it hard to stop.