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SPOTLIGHT: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

By Lesley Sotolongo


In January 2003, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) bureau was established as an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (HSI) to refocus homeland security inspection and investigation functions. ICE prides itself on being the largest investigative arm within HSI, providing “unparalleled investigation, interdiction, and security services to the public and to our law enforcement partners in the federal and local sectors.”

Among its many investigative functions, ICE plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, specifically, objects that have been reported lost or stolen. Cultural property is defined by HSI as “movable or immovable property of importance to a cultural heritage, society, or nation.”

ICE has a special program dedicated to the retrieval of stolen works known as, The Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program (Program), with the largest office consisting of approximately twenty-six special agents located in New York. These agents are tasked with ‘promoting goodwill’ with foreign governments and citizens, while significantly protecting the world’s cultural heritage and knowledge of past civilizations. Under the Program, investigators are assigned to domestic and international offices to partner with federal, state and local agencies, private institutions, and foreign governments. Federal importation laws give HSI the authority to investigate crimes involving illicit importation and distribution of cultural property and art. ICE agents use customs laws under 18 U.S. Code § 545, such as smuggling, entry, and trafficking of goods into the U.S. through false statements,to seize cultural property and art and return it to the countries of origin.

According to Interpol, the third most profitable crime currently in existence is the trafficking of cultural property. It is estimated to be a $6 – $8 billion a year industry. Statistics available about the ICE activities indicate that since 2007, more than 7,150 artifacts have been returned to twenty-seven countries, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria, historical manuscripts from Italy and Peru, and also cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq. ICE keeps a comprehensive list of works returned by HSI available on its website entitled Fact Sheet.

ICE Works: Poland Case Study

Most recently, a painting by Johann Conrad Seekatz Saint Philip Baptizing a Servant of Queen Kandaki looted from Poland during World War II (“WWII”) was returned to the Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Bogdan Zdrojewski in a ceremony held at the Polish Consulate on February 6, 2014. This painting was one of those removed from the national Polish Museum in Warsaw by Nazi soldiers sometime between 1939 and 1945.


It is well known that during World War II, millions of artworks were displaced and looted. Efforts to recover looted art began as soon as the war ended and have continued into the present, with new discoveries (see Gurlitt) and new claims being filed regularly (see Picasso in Germany and Pissarro in Oklahoma). Poland was one of the nations whose cultural heritage suffered terrible losses during the war. Today, the Polish MInistry of Culture is engaged in a systematic campaign to find and return as many of the lost cultural valuables as possible. Like Poland, other countries catalogue wartime losses and recent thefts. Once a country becomes aware of a particular missing artwork’s whereabouts, the country may place the information on the Interpol database which notifies special agents to further investigate it.

In the case of Seekatz’s Saint Philip, U.S. special agents met with Polish officials who provided supporting documentation to assist in the identification and recovery of this painting. Specific efforts to recover this painting date back to 2006, when a painting matching the description of the missing “Saint Philip Baptizing a Servant of Queen Kandaki” surfaced at auction at Doyle New York Auctioneers and Appraisers in October 2006. The painting was consigned and auctioned under an erroneous name to Rafael Valls Gallery in London for approximately $24,000. Investigation persisted, however, and after completing its investigation, ICE agents informed the Rafael Valls Gallery that it was in fact the looted painting belonging to Poland. ICE agents seized the painting in London and brought it to New York were it was repatriated to Poland. In summary, the investigation and return occurred over a period of seven years.

Seekatz’s painting is not the first Polish-owned artwork to be recovered by ICE. The agency spent years investigating other Polish wartime losses; it has repatriated three more works to Poland throughout the years of the Program’s existence including a Polish army pre-1939 Regimental Standard (Banner) and two Julian Falat paintings, The Hunt and Off to the Hunt also known as Before Going Hunting in Rytwiany. Moreover, ICE continues its mission of preserving cultural property and encourages anyone with further information to reach out to its agents. For more information please visit the ICE website at:

Those interested in working for ICE are encouraged to apply to its Presidential Management Fellows Program. Graduate students from any academic discipline who are expected to complete an advanced degree (i.e., master’s, law, or doctoral degree) from a qualifying college or university by August 31 of the current academic year are eligible to apply to the program. The ICE also has internships and a recent graduates program.


ICE News

The Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigation

ICE Fact Sheet

ICE Homeland Security Investigations: Efforts to Combat Illicit Trafficking in Stolen Art, Antiquities, and Cultural Property

DHS, “Border Reorganization Fact Sheet” (Jan. 30, 2003), available at http:// (announcing creation of ICE).



NY Daily News

About the Author: Lesley Sotolongo, is a third year law student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She may be reached at

Disclaimer: This and all articles are intended as general information, not legal advice, and offer no substitute for seeking representation.