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Recovering stolen cultural heritage

Recovering stolen cultural heritage
Portal of the Italian language

Italy is among the countries worst affected by the illegal export of cultural and archaeological goods and, over time, it has developed legal, investigative and organisational tools to tackle this phenomenon. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation supports the recovery of cultural property stolen from Italy and other countries, acting as a link and go-between for the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities and for Tourism (MiBACT), the Committee for the Recovery and Restitution of Cultural Property as part of the MiBACT, the Carabinieri Unit for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, Italian diplomatic missions abroad and foreign ones in Italy.

It also assists the MiBACT in negotiations to define bilateral agreements with other countries, aimed at repressing the illicit export of cultural heritage and favouring the return of stolen goods, in line with the provisions of a number of international conventions (The Hague 1954, UNESCO 1970 and 2001, UNIDROIT 1995).

The prevention of illegal trafficking and the recovery of stolen cultural goods are closely linked to the protection of cultural heritage in the event of a crisis or armed conflict, an issue that has played an increasingly important role in international debate since 2015, especially within the scope of UNESCO and the United Nations. Italy has played a fundamental role in this process and has created the Unite4Heritage Task Force, also known as the ‘Blue Helmets of culture’. This Task Force will be made available to UNESCO and the international community, in accordance with procedures that are in the process of being defined.

The United Nations Security Council approved two important resolutions on the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage in 2015 (2199 and 2253) and, in 2017, a resolution on the protection of cultural heritage and identities in areas of crisis and conflict (2347).

The Carabinieri Unit for the Protection of Cultural Heritage

The Carabinieri Unit for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (TPC) was established in May 1969. Italy was the first country in the world to set up a unit specialised in this field, even before the 1970 UNESCO Convention invited Member States to do so.

This Carabinieri Unit operates within the MiBACT and counts 300 military personnel, specifically trained in the field of cultural heritage; these officers are assigned to 15 territorial units as well as a section dedicated to eastern Sicily. The headquarters in Rome includes a Central Station and an Operational Department, divided into Antiques, Archaeology, Counterfeiting and Contemporary Art sections.

The Carabinieri TPC Unit works towards guaranteeing the safety and protection of Italy’s cultural heritage through various kinds of operations:

  • Activities to prevent theft, particularly from archaeological areas, from UNESCO World Heritage sites and from areas with high numbers of tourists;
  • Checking security measures adopted inside museums, archives, libraries and other places of cultural interest;
  • Monitoring illegal trading in traditional antiques markets and via the internet.

This Carabinieri Unit’s continuous work keeps the stolen heritage database up to date; this database includes around 700,000 images and information on 1.2 million objects, belonging to Italy’s heritage, but also to foreign countries.

The Carabinieri TPC Unit has also been directly involved in the recovery and securing of cultural heritage damaged by natural disasters, for example following the earthquakes that hit central Italy in 2016 and the island of Ischia in 2017.

At international level, work to safeguard cultural heritage that has been either damaged or endangered by war or natural disasters is entrusted to the Unite4Heritage Task Force, which also includes members of the Carabinieri Unit for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (TPC).

The TPC Unit also raises awareness about the importance of protecting heritage, carrying out training and information sharing activities in schools and museums and providing citizens with innovative tools, such as the iTPC mobile app.

Central Station: Palazzo SantIgnazio – Piazza di SantIgnazio152, 00186 – Rome
Protection of Cultural Heritage Operational Department: Via Anicia 24, 00153 – Rome