More than 100 people have been arrested and over 19,000 stolen archaeological artefacts from war-torn nations have been recovered in an international crackdown on arts trafficking.
The global operation, by Europol, to dismantle an international network of art and antiquities traffickers involved 103 countries.
The criminal networks handled archaeological goods and artwork looted from war-stricken countries, as well as works stolen from museums and archaeological sites.
Seizures include coins from different periods, archaeological objects, ceramics, historical weapons, paintings and fossils. Facilitating objects, such as metal detectors were also seized.
Police have arrested 101 people and 300 investigations have been launched.
Afghan Customs said their officials seized 971 cultural objects at Kabul Airport just as the objects were about to depart for Istanbul, Turkey.
In Spain, the Spanish National Police, working together with the Colombian Police, recovered rare pre-Columbian objects acquired through looting in Colombia at Barajas airport in Madrid.
The haul included a unique Tumaco gold mask and several gold figurines and items of ancient jewellery.
“The number of arrests and objects show the scale and global reach of the illicit trade in cultural artefacts, where every country with a rich heritage is a potential target,” said Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock.
“If you then take the significant amounts of money involved and the secrecy of the transactions, this also presents opportunities for money laundering and fraud as well as financing organised crime networks."
Three traffickers were arrested in Spain, and the Colombian authorities carried searches in Bogota, resulting in the seizure of a further 242 pre-Colombian objects, the largest ever seizure in the country’s history.
Another investigation into a single online sale led to the seizure of 2,500 ancient coins by the Argentinian Federal Police Force, the largest seizure for this category of items, while the second largest seizure of 1,375 coins was made by Latvian State Police.
“The operational success of customs and its law enforcement partners offers tangible proof that international trafficking of cultural objects is thriving and touches upon all continents," said Dr Kunio Mikuriya, World Customs Organisation (WCO) Secretary General.
"In particular, we keep receiving evidence that online illicit markets are one of the major vehicles for this crime.
"However, online transactions always leave a trace and Customs, Police and other partners have established effective mechanisms to work together to prevent cross border illicit trade."
Six European Police forces also reported the seizure of 108 metal detectors.
The crackdown was part of the global Operation Athena II, led by the World Customs Organisation and Interpol.
Investigators had been monitoring online market places and sales sites.
As a result, 8,670 cultural objects for online sale were seized. This represents 28 per cent of the total artefacts recovered during the international crackdown.
This is the second time that Europol, Interpol and the WCO have joined forces to tackle the illicit trade in cultural heritage.
“Organised crime has many faces. The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them: it is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks," said Catherine de Bolle, Europol’s executive director.
"You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons: we know that the same groups are engaged, because it generates big money.
"Given that this is a global phenomenon affecting every country on the planet – either as a source, transit or destination, it is crucial that law enforcement agencies all work together to combat it.
"Europol, in its role as the European Law Enforcement Agency, supported the EU countries involved in this global crackdown by using its intelligence capabilities to identify the pan-European networks behind these thefts.”
The operation was carried out last October but the details can only now be released due to operational reasons.