Crimes against cultural heritage are long-standing issues for law enforcement agencies all over the world. In the last few decades, also following the recommendations of UNESCO Convention 1970, many countries have established specialized units of the respective national police forces devoted to the fight against illicit trade and the protection of monuments and cultural goods (for example, Italian TPC Command and French OCBC).
Today, thanks to the helpfulness of Officer Álvaro Reyes Mateos, we will dive a little deeper into the work of the Cultural Heritage Brigade of the Spanish National Police.
Officer Reyes studied History of Art at the Complutense University in Madrid obtaining his bachelor degree in 2004. After a brief foray into the field of Archaeology, in 2009, he decided to apply to the Spanish National Police where he worked in different departments before joining the Cultural Heritage Brigade in 2013. Currently, he is an investigator police officer and also one of the Spanish Police members of the NETcher Project dedicated to countering the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage.
Officer Reyes, first, thank you for kindly having accepted to join us for this interview. As an officer of the Cultural Heritage Brigade, could you briefly outline the history of the Spanish Unit?
R.: To understand the origins of our Unit, we must go back to the ’60s and ’70s. At the time, our cultural heritage was enduring constant losses. With the advent of metal detecting in Spain, news about plundered cultural goods – or sensational thefts – became more and more common. Many of these crimes were carried out by a thief called René Alphonse van den Berghe, also known as “Erik the Belgian”, recently deceased in Málaga. Together with his collaborators, he committed several major thefts in Spain, causing a great commotion throughout the country. In 1977, in response to the situation, the National Police established the first Artworks Group (Grupo de Obras de Arte). A few years later, the National Law 16/85 of Spanish Cultural Heritage and the Royal Decree 111/86 passed, and the current Cultural Heritage Brigade (Brigada de Patrimonio Histórico, BPH) was born.
So, the Brigada was created to tackle specific national issues, not many years after the Italian Carabinieri Command for Cultural Heritage Protection. And how is it currently composed?
R.: At the moment, 18 police officers make up the BPH, organized in three operative groups. Given the extent of our jurisdiction covering the entire country, we are a relatively small team. However, we have the support of police networks in each of the 50 Spanish provinces and the historic towns with the most prominent cultural heritage.
The BPH works, of course, in partnership with other Spanish law enforcement agencies, but how does the Unit relate to its foreign counterparts? In Spanish perspective, how effective and meaningful is the European cooperation?
R.: Nowadays, almost every case of cultural heritage crime we deal with has connections abroad. Due to the international character of such criminal activities, police forces need each other in order to work effectively. Therefore, international cooperation is pivotal to achieve recovery and restitution of cultural items. The collaboration is not limited to the respective national police forces, but it also involves international institutions, such as Interpol or the World Customs Organization.
For obvious reasons, European collaboration is our main international frame of action. Institutions such as Europol or Eurojust are fundamental as they coordinate and facilitate the exchange of information between Police Forces and Judiciary Authorities. Legal instruments such as the EU directive 10/2014, implemented in Spanish Law in 2017 (Law 1/2017 of April 18th), provide the basis for restitution claims of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State.
And which are, so far, the most outstanding examples of good international cooperation that come to your mind?
R.: There are many examples of good international cooperation. I am choosing two of them from our recent operations. The first case is the operation Máscara. Thanks to reliable intelligence work, we identified a yet-unknown trafficking route (Colombia-France-Spain-Russia-China), arrested two people, and seized a set of pre-Columbian gold objects in Madrid, among which a Tumaco mask and a Muisca raft. The most exceptional items were recovered in Madrid Adolfo Suárez Barajas Airport, while the rest came from a private safe-box.
Meanwhile, through our Columbian contacts in Madrid, the BPH reached out to the Columbian National Police, and they were able to arrest several people and carry out the biggest seizure of cultural objects in the history of that country (242 items).
In December 2019, on the other hand, an international collaboration gave birth to operation Bambú. Investigations began when the Spanish National Police received the information that a group of Spanish burglars had been hired by a Chinese mafia gang to steal part of a Chinese art collection from a French museum, in exchange for nearly 800.000 euros. Via Europol, we warned the French OCBC, and they ascertained that the burglars were planning a heist on the Fontainebleau Castle. As a result, one Chinese and five Spanish citizens ended up in handcuffs in France.
Both cases show the importance of pre-existing communication channels in order to give a timely response in case of an emergency.
Thank you for sharing such exciting international cases. Could you also mention a couple of operations of the Spanish Unit which have stricken you as remarkably successful?
R.: Although several cases come to my mind, I will focus on two ongoing operations: Bacon and Leona. Operation Bacon takes its name after Irish painter Francis Bacon. In June 2015, five of his paintings (about 30 million euro value) were stolen from an apartment in the centre of Madrid. After a lengthy investigation, the thieves committed a critical mistake which eventually led to the arrest of seven people. Afterwards, thanks to the close cooperation with the Madrid Thefts Brigade, we managed to retrieve three of the stolen paintings. We are currently still hunting for the missing paintings.
Nevertheless, my favourite operation is Leona. In February 2017, we found out that massive looting had occurred in Andalusia. We started an investigation and were able to identify some of the people involved. We also gained access to some photos of the looted objects, that is three superb Iberian sculptures representing two bulls and one lioness. Despite the information we were able to collect, our investigation stalled for more than a year, and we could not identify the whereabouts of the items. In March 2018, in the framework of another investigation, we seized many electronic devices. While analysing one of the computers, we spotted the picture of the same sculptures, but already restored.
Most interestingly, we realized that the sculptures had been “laundered”. The criminals had produced fake documentation dating the “original” purchase from an antique dealer back to 1973. Moreover, the lioness sculpture had already been sold for 760.000 euros. This data allowed us to observe, from a front-row seat, and to understand the whole “laundering” process of looted archaeological items.
Thanks to the collaboration with our colleagues in Jaén and Barcelona, the circle was eventually closed. We recovered the sculptures (the first three, plus a second lioness) and we arrested many of the people involved both in the “laundering” chain and the looting process. Before we can close the operation, some details are still pending today, but we hope to finalize them soon.
This is very interesting. According to your experience, which are the most crucial elements leading to such successful outputs?
R.: In my opinion, the most relevant factor in any investigation, including those about cultural heritage crime, is accessing reliable and timely sources. This requires constant communication with all the actors involved, that is our contacts in other provinces, other police forces in Spain or abroad, archaeologists and academics, art dealers and, finally, people connected to criminal networks.
Of course, good networking is vital. In this regard, how much does interdisciplinarity impact on cultural heritage cases? Should it be implemented by fostering the collaboration among cultural heritage specialists, law enforcement agencies and the art market?
R.: Interdisciplinarity is essential to our work. Dealing with items of different nature and from different periods, we need specialists’ advice at all stages of the investigations. As I mentioned above, we need pieces of information to start an investigation. Anyone working in the field is a potential source: researchers, archaeologists or curators, archivists, etc. After the recovery of the objects, we also need their expert report to complete our inquiries.
The BPH enjoys a close and fruitful collaboration with many institutions under central or regional control (museums, archives, libraries, universities, etc.). For example, we regularly work with the Spanish Cultural Heritage Institute (IPCE): they are currently examining the sculptures recovered during Operation Leona.
It is also indispensable to be able to collaborate with the art market’s stakeholders. Sometimes, however, there can be mistrust between art dealers and police forces. Therefore, we should work on building a trustworthy relationship, for example by organizing specific meetings.
That is an important point. So, as I understand, you do directly address the art market’s professionals too.
R.: We try to keep the communication open with auction houses, gallerists and other actors in the art market. But, as I underlined before, this is an issue that we need to work on further.
And how does the Cultural Heritage Brigade engage with the general public? Do you attend public events on cultural dissemination?
R.: One of the aims of the BPH is to convey the importance of taking care of cultural heritage and to highlight the role that each and every one of us can play in its preservation. The destruction of archaeological sites, for example in Syria and Iraq, and the illicit trafficking of looted objects from war-torn areas have drawn more attention to cultural heritage issues. As a result, we are often invited to talk about our activities and heritage protection. But, of course, the public involved in these events (conferences, university courses, etc.) is quite often already aware of the matters.
If we want to reach out to a broader audience, we must make our work stand out in other ways. For example, the Spanish national TV (TVE2) has recently released the show Guardians of the Heritage. In 13 episodes, it deals with some of the most prominent Spanish investigations concerning cultural heritage crime. The TV-show had notable success, and they are currently working on the second season.
Indeed, TV-shows can be pretty useful to convey information while entertaining. And how do you warn the citizens against cultural heritage crimes?
R.: One of the main problems we face in promoting our work is that people do often see only the glamourous side of the art market. However, this is far from reality. Cultural heritage crime also connects to other types of criminal activities, such as organized crime, money laundering, terror financing, etc. The glamour of international art fairs contrasts with the situation of the source-sites of looted items, which frequently are the poorest and the most crisis-stricken places in their respective countries. Cultural heritage could be a powerful development tool for these regions. Therefore, local people must understand that they are losing valuable resources and that tolerance in this field only benefits the criminals.
So, in your opinion, what are today’s biggest challenges in countering cultural heritage crime, in Spain and on the international scene?
R.: I think the main challenge, both for Spain and on the international level, is fighting against archaeological looting and the illicit trafficking. As far as Spain is concerned, the situation has been getting worse in recent years. In addition to the widespread use of metal detectors and the development of illicit trafficking networks, social media (Facebook, eBay, Catawiki, etc.) have allowed looters to sell their findings directly to the buyers everywhere in the world. To better address these technological advances, Operation Leona has recently prompted the institution of an operative group, inside the BPH, solely dedicated to cyber patrolling.
Through the Internet, criminals also have easier access to information on pricing, which allows them to bypass intermediaries and negotiate straight with potential buyers. But the intermediaries have not yet lost their relevant place in the criminal chain: they still have firsthand contacts with gallerists, collectors, and international networks. If looters find something particularly valuable, they resort to traditional, well-known channels to sell the items.
The looting problem is especially heavy in regions such as Andalusia, Extremadura, and Castilla la Mancha, where the abundance in cultural heritage contrasts with the unfavourable local economic situation. After the 2008-crisis, the decline in wages pushed many people to find alternative resources, including illegal ones. We can already see similar effects due to the current Covid-19 pandemic. On the other hand, recent political and social crises – in different areas of the world – have raised the attention on archaeological illicit trafficking, mostly because of its connections to terrorism.
Indeed, economic crises can be accelerating factors for criminal activities. To conclude, what kind of improvements (in the organization, international collaboration, international law, etc.) would you recommend for the future?
R.: Recent operations carried out by police forces in Spain and France have allowed us to properly understand how traffickers operate. For example, in order to hide their illicit provenance, looted items are exported from the origin countries on intricate routes touching transit-hubs, such as Thailand, Emirates or Hong Kong, before hitting the European art markets. We have also identified legal loopholes that make more difficult to prosecute art crimes. Thus, before designing new instruments, I believe that authorities in each country, together with the stakeholders of the legal art market, should apply more rigorously the existing international agreements and regulations. We should also be more demanding when verifying the provenance and provenience of art items… since we are all aware of what lays behind the caption: «private Swiss collection, before 1970».