Global crackdown on stolen art nets thousands of artifacts, more than 100 arrests

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A crackdown on stolen art last autumn -- spanning multiple continents -- netted around 19,000 artifacts and more than 100 arrests, authorities revealed on Thursday.

The two multinational operations involved officers from Interpol, Europol, the World Customs Organization and many national police forces going after criminal networks that had stolen from museums, archaeological sites and war-torn countries.

The Spanish National Police recovered a unique pre-Columbian Tumaco gold mask

The Spanish National Police recovered a unique pre-Columbian Tumaco gold mask (Interpol)

Many of the artifacts were seized by targeting online sales. The investigation of a single sale online helped the Argentinian Federal Police Force seize around 2,500 ancient coins.

Afghan Customs seized some 971 cultural objects at Kabul airport. The Spanish National Police, working with the Colombian Police, recovered pre-Columbian objects illegally acquired through looting in Colombia.

Objects seized by Spain's Guardia Civil.

Objects seized by Spain's Guardia Civil. (Interpol)

“The number of arrests and objects show the scale and global reach of the illicit trade in cultural artifacts, 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 organized crime networks.”

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Europol Executive Director Catherine de Bolle said warned that cultural antiquities trafficking “is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks.”

“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,” she said.

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The two operations involved 300 separate investigations and 101 suspects arrested, Interpol announced in a news release.