Stolen Masterpieces: How Organized Crime Targets the International Art World


An art historian and criminologist argues that efforts to battle sophisticated art-theft rings are stymied by the lack of academic research and by public misconceptions about the trade in stolen art.

Once a gentleman-thief's activity, art thefts now earn hundreds of millions of dollars for organized crime. Over the past 50 years, international syndicates have not only been responsible for most art thefts and forgeries, but have used the profits to fund activities such as the drug and arms trades, and terrorism.

According to the FBI, illicit gains from art crime run about six billion dollars annually.

Yet art-world outsiders, including law enforcement authorities and politicians, mistakenly believe that art crime is not particularly important. They argue that it only involves the collectibles of the wealthy, and that the only victims are other members of the elitist art world.

This misconception has not been helped by the fact that art crime has lacked the kind of scholarly research and analysis which is critical to safeguarding the multi-billion dollar legitimate art industry, and to protecting the variety of enterprises involved in the art trade and art preservation, from museums and auction houses to galleries and private collections.

One reason for these gaps in knowledge and perceptions is the lack of understanding of how art crime has been dramatically transformed since World War II. Until the 1940s, most art crime was perpetrated by idealistic individuals with gentlemanly aspirations. Thefts were non-violent and elegant, in their use of dexterity and intelligence over force. But in the post-war period, and specifically since 1960, international organized crime organizations have moved in.

Apart from the occasional individual thief or forger, syndicates ranging from smaller organized gangs to the Sicilian and Russian mafias now largely control all aspects of art crime, from planning the heist to transport and sale of the stolen goods.

And they have added their signature element: the use of violence. There is a new trend in so-called “blitz” thefts, in which armed and masked gunmen burst into museums, grab artworks nearest the door, and run out before the alarm has time to summon police. This occurred in the 2001 Stockholm Museum theft, the 2004 Munch Museum theft, and the 2008 Emil Buhrle Collection theft, to name but a few examples.

There are hundreds of thousands of art crimes every year, though the general public only hears about the handful that make international headlines because they involve major museums or masterpieces.

In Italy alone over 20,000 such crimes are reported annually, and many more go unreported. Few countries have dedicated art police, and fewer still have specialized training for their staff in how art crime, and the illicit art world, functions. In the U.S., the FBI has a small art squad that was founded only a few years ago. The Los Angeles Police Department has an art theft unit, and the New York Police Department’s only detective specializing in art crime died in 2006. By contrast, the Italian Carabinieri have over 300 full-time art agents.

The paucity of solid, comprehensive empirical data begins with the fact that police are usually instructed to file art theft under the category of stolen property, resulting in the loss of valuable data from the outset, at a local level. The study of art crime has been inhibited by this lack of data, making the field, at this stage, insufficiently scientific, with an over-reliance on anecdotal history and the experience of those in the field.

One of the goals of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) is to encourage the academic study of art crime, and introduce the field to criminologists, who rely on data sets that have, until now, been both incomplete and inaccessible outside of national police forces.

Founded in 2006, with branches in the United States and Italy, ARCA is an international non-profit think tank and research group on issues in art crime and cultural property protection. ARCA also runs a new Masters Program on the study of art crime in Italy, and publishes the first peer-reviewed academic journal on the subject, The Journal of Art Crime, for which submissions and subscriptions are welcome.

Noah Charney, an art historian and criminologist, is founding director of The Association for Research into Crimes against Art and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Art Crime. He is the author of a novel, The Art Thief (Atria 2007), and is currently Adjunct Professor of Art History at The American University of Rome.

Picture Via Guardian Art Blog

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