Defending East European Museums

Article excerpt

Eastern Europe is seeking a collective strategy to end the plunder of its museums as well as churches, private collections and archaeological sites by organized crime. The region is receiving much practical support from Britain.

Hungary recently called an international conference on the protection of cultural treasures and announced the creation' of a high-profile criminal investigation centre to co-ordinate operations. Several police forces of the region are to join the Europol net on the operational level under the supervision of liaison officers.

The announcement of the accord - part of the preparations by some of these countries to join the European Union - was made at the Budapest conference held under the aegis of Interpol. The proceedings were confidential. But the delegates, mostly museum and art and insurance experts, lawyers, bankers and police officers, were freely accessible to the press.

Shortly before the conference, police arrested two Russians with eight priceless Medieval icons in their car, apparently stolen from across the Ukrainian border. Notes found on the suspects identified several well known Hungarian art dealers and established a vital connection with numerous previous robberies and arrests.

'Virtually everyone contributing to the discussions emphasized the importance of intensified international co-operation, especially now that the frontiers between Eastern and Western Europe have been liberated,' said Lieutenant Colonel Zoltan Nagy, director of the Hungarian office of Interpol, who acted as the chairman of the conference.

The trade in stolen cultural treasures is a relatively recent but hugely important activity of the Russian Mafia. The number of art robberies in the region has dramatically increased since the beginning of this decade, roughly coinciding with the emergence of a vigorous new, legitimate art auction market. The stolen goods - paintings, icons, statues, jewellery, books, manuscripts, antiques and other valuable furniture, carpets and even doors removed from listed buildings - are often used in money laundering operations.

Raymond E. Kendall, the secretary-general of Interpol, has told me: 'The geography of Hungary makes this place the centre of East-West developments - and that fact has not escaped organized crime.'

During the past decade, the Russian Mafia has created a Western bridgehead in the Hungarian capital, exploiting the Magyar tradition as the cultural middleman of Europe now reinforced by excellent communications facilities and a liberal legal infrastructure. Much of the traffic in stolen art originating from inadequately protected collections of formerly Soviet-dominated Europe towards the rich markets of the West pass through a sophisticated transport and distribution centre established in Budapest.

In 1990, 702 robberies of art treasures took place in Hungary causing an estimated total damage of [pounds]710,000, rising to 1,025 recorded robberies in 1997 with a loss of [pounds]1.4m. Developing from very modest beginnings at the turn of the decade, the legitimate Hungarian art auction market yielded [pounds]4.6m in 1997, up from [pounds]2.9m a year earlier. This year's total may well reach [pounds]7.25m.

Vigorous art markets are also developing in Prague, Warsaw and St. Petersburg. The Czech Republic has recently lost some 6,000 valuable pieces of art and antiques, up from less than 100 a year before 'the velvet revolution'. The recovery rate is less than 10 per cent. Investigations have been hampered by the usually inadequate funds for the dissemination of information that would prevent the sale of stolen objects on the legitimate market.

The region is fighting back. There have been some spectacular success stories, thanks largely to international co-operation and the ability of some museums to identify stolen works.

Lieutenant Colonel Tibor Enyedi of the Criminal Directorate, the leader of a newly established five-man unit for the protection of cultural treasures, told the conference that it is now virtually ready to access Interpol's computerized register of stolen art. …