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Vulnerable yet invaluable: Protecting our patrimony by safeguarding art, artifacts, archaeology and assets

Christopher Colford's picture

The spectacular recovery of a long-missing painting by Pablo Picasso – a canvas that had been stolen more than a decade ago, in a daring museum theft in Paris – offers a vivid reminder of the illicit worldwide trade in stolen assets, artworks and archeological artifacts. Preventing the cross-border smuggling of stolen money, art and natural treasures poses a stern challenge to law-enforcement authorities. Yet the vigilance of the international network of corruption-hunters and asset-trackers can often result in a triumph, as illustrated by the case of the now-recovered Picasso.

The art world hailed last week’s revelation that “La Coiffeuse,” painted by Picasso in 1911, had been intercepted in December by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. The painting was identified during its shipment to a climate-controlled warehouse in Long Island City, New York, and it was then seized while it was in transit at Port Newark, New Jersey. The work – unseen since its 2001 theft from the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris – had been shipped on December 17 from Belgium to the United States in an innocent-looking FedEx container, adorned with a holiday-season tag marked, “Joyeux Noel.” Its shipping registration papers falsely described it as an “art craft/toy” valued at $37. The legal process that began last week in New York should soon have the canvas on its way back to France, where it is owned by the nation.

The Picasso had been assigned an estimated value of about 2 million euros at the time of its theft in 2001 – suggesting how lucrative the underground market for stolen art may be. Despite any such theoretical valuation, however, such cultural riches are truly beyond price: They belong to humanity’s shared patrimony, and thus their theft is an immeasurable crime against history.



"La Coiffeuse" by Pablo Picasso. Photograph via the U.S. Department of Justice.

The sudden recovery of the Picasso has reminded art-watchers – and law-enforcement officials – that the 25th anniversary of a still-baffling crime is fast approaching: the March 18, 1990 theft of $500 million in artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. That theft deprived the world of, among other masterpieces, Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” painted in 1633. Despite occasional rumors that some of the stolen works might be available somewhere on the global black market, that crime remains unsolved – and the criminals, part of the vast international network of art thieves and smugglers, remain at large.

Police agencies and global asset-trackers certainly face a herculean task. International plunder takes many forms – from the “grand-scale corruption” that infects fraudulent banking transactions to the looting of countries’ wealth by dictators and kleptocrats. Cracking down on the illicit flows of funds worldwide – which are sometimes abetted by corruptible accountants and pliant lawyers, who help steer loot to safe havens and stash money in offshore tax-dodging accounts – requires persistent detective work and meticulous forensic accounting. In the case of stolen art treasures, the art world must appeal to the conscience of connoisseurs and dealers – and must rely on the integrity of curators at museums large and small, who surely know better than to traffic in property whose provenance might be even slightly suspicious.

Units like the Stolen Assets Recovery (StAR) Initiative – a joint effort by the World Bank and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime – patiently promote cooperation among transnational, national and local law-enforcement bodies. That task requires a commitment for the long haul, as they steadily pursue capacity-building among governments and private-sector watchdog agencies that are determined to build their anticorruption capabilities. Closer legal, technical and financial coordination sans frontières is an indispensable tool in hunting down and repatriating looted lucre.

As in the case of the now-recovered Picasso, the effort to protect priceless artworks sometimes ends in a law-enforcement success. In a just-opened art exhibition in Washington, art-watchers can now get an up-close look at an inspiring example of how a strong national commitment to fighting crime – backed by methodical investigative work and tenacious legal processes – can achieve enduring results.

The Embassy of Italy last week opened an exhibition of irreplaceable artworks that might have forever vanished onto the international black market, had it not been for the work of one of the country's specialized military units: the Guardia di Finanza, which since 1916 has protected Italy from smuggling, drug trafficking and financial crimes. Its specialized art-investigations team, the Gruppo Tutela Patrimonio Archeologico, has successfully prevented the theft of many works of art, some of which can now be seen (by appointment) at the Embassy on Whitehaven Street. Treasures such as these are integral to Italy’s culture and the West's heritage.

In opening the exhibition, Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero noted that “the trafficking of archaeological works is a growing phenomenon that in recent years has spiraled upwards at an alarming rate” – with Italy ranking “first among the countries [that are] victims of this crime. . . . These treasures belong to Italy. But they also belong to European identity and, by extension, to all mankind.”

With the Picasso canvas soon headed back to Paris, and with the recovered art and archaeological treasures now being celebrated at the Embassy, arts-watchers can breathe easier, knowing that these masterworks are secure. But protecting the global patrimony requires the constant vigilance of corruption-hunters and asset-trackers – like the Guardia di Finanza, the StAR unit and their law-enforcement allies worldwide – who stand guard against the plunder of the vulnerable yet invaluable assets that comprise the common heritage of humanity.


Vaccines Save Lives!

Patricio V. Marquez's picture
photo (c) GAVI: The Vaccine Alliance

Measles cases in U.S. highlight need to eliminate vaccine-preventable diseases everywhere

The news media in the United States and abroad has been abuzz in recent days focusing on the measles outbreak at Disneyland.  The irony of this situation is that measles, after being officially eliminated in the United States in 2000, reappeared in 2014 with 644 cases in 27 states as reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC).  The reason is simple:  while in the 1980s, more than 97% of one-year olds in the United States were routinely vaccinated, the current share has fallen to 91%, facilitated by exemptions in some states that permit parents to “opt out” of vaccinating children on the basis of religious or personal beliefs. In other parts of the world,  continued measles outbreaks in Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia have also occurred due to weak routine immunization systems and delayed implementation of accelerated disease control.

The World Bank Group’s full project portfolio is now on the map

Philippa Sigl-Gloeckner's picture



We promise to add rich detail to our maps so that anyone will be able to go online, click on the maps, and immediately learn where we are working and what we are doing.” (Jim Yong Kim, Annual Meetings 2013)

For the first time, the World Bank Group’s (WBG) full portfolio, including IFC and MIGA is on the map (maps.worldbank.org). This accomplishment marks the completion of the geo-mapping target President Kim announced at the 2013 Annual Meetings. It is the result of a long collaboration across the WBG team’s to overcome numerous hurdles and successfully built on the foundation put down by the Mapping for Results team.

How Well did We Forecast 2014?

Shanta Devarajan's picture

A year ago, we polled Future Development bloggers for predictions on the coming year (2014).  Looking back, we find that many unforeseen (and possibly unforeseeable) events had major economic impact. 

We missed the developments in Ukraine and Russia, the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, the collapse in oil prices and their attendant effects on economic growth.  At the same time, we picked the winner of the soccer World Cup, and got many of the technology trends right. Perhaps economists are better at predicting non-economic events.

Here’s the scorecard on the seven predictions made:
 

Business Leaders & Finance Ministers Changing the Conversation to Drive Clean Investment

Rachel Kyte's picture
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Executives from Alstom, the Swedish pension fund AP4, Deutsche Bank, and the French pension fund ERAFP joined finance ministers for an informal climate ministerial discussion about carbon pricing during this year's World Bank Group/IMF Annual Meetings. After the meeting, Rachel Kyte, the World Bank Group's vice president & special envoy for climate change, described the conversation and some of the takeaways.

Pension Fund CEO: Pricing Carbon Fixes a Market Failure

Philippe Desfossés's picture
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Philippe Desfossés is the CEO of ERAFP, the French Public Service Additional Pension Scheme. He spoke about carbon pricing from an investor's perspective.

“I support putting a price on carbon because it fixes a market failure. Without carbon pricing, the market has no way to address the costs associated carbon emissions. These costs end up being borne by everyone, including companies and societies.

The Fight Against Ebola Is a Fight Against Inequality

Jim Yong Kim's picture
A woman walks by an Ebola awareness sign in Freetown, Liberia. © Tanya Bindra/UNICEF
A woman walks by an Ebola awareness sign in Freetown, Liberia. ​© Tanya Bindra/UNICEF


As the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa shows, the importance of reducing inequality could not be more clear. The battle against the virus is a fight on many fronts — human lives and health foremost among them.

But the fight against Ebola is also a fight against inequality. The knowledge and infrastructure to treat the sick and contain the virus exists in high- and middle-income counties. However, over many years, we have failed to make these things accessible to low-income people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. So now thousands of people in these countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place.

If we do not stop Ebola now, the infection will continue to spread to other countries and even continents, as we have seen with the first Ebola case in the United States this past week. This pandemic shows the deadly cost of unequal access to basic services and the consequences of our failure to fix this problem.
The virus is spreading out of control in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. As a consequence, our ability to boost shared prosperity in West Africa — and potentially the entire continent — may be quickly disappearing.

Austerity vs. Fiscal Stimulus: A False Dilemma?

Augusto Lopez-Claros's picture

The 2008-2009 global financial crisis led to a number of large–scale government interventions across the world. These included massive provisions of liquidity, the takeover of weak financial institutions, the extension of deposit insurance schemes, purchases by the government of troubled assets, bank recapitalization and, of course, packages of fiscal stimulus, sometimes of a scale not seen since World War II. Even the IMF, the world’s traditional guardian of sound public finance, came out strongly in favor of fiscal loosening, arguing through its managing director that “if there has ever been a time in modern economic history when fiscal policy and a fiscal stimulus should be used, it's now” and that it should take place “everywhere where it's possible. Everywhere where you have some room concerning debt sustainability. Everywhere where inflation is low enough not to risk having some kind of return of inflation, this effort has to be made".

Carbon Pricing – Delivering Economic & Climate Benefits

Thomas Kerr's picture

 TonyV3112/Shutterstock

A dangerously warming planet is not just an environmental challenge – it is a fundamental threat to efforts to end poverty, and it threatens to put prosperity out of the reach of millions of people.  Read the recent Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change if you need further evidence.

If we agree it is an economic problem, what do we do about it?  There is general agreement among economists that a robust price on carbon is a key part of effective strategies to avert dangerous climate change. A strong price signal directs finance away from fossil fuels and toward a suite of cleaner, more efficient alternatives.

This logic is not lost on governments and companies.  Momentum is building around the globe to put a price on carbon.  Consider these facts:


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