Stealing Art Can Be A Lucrative Venture, But Is It Worth It?

May 28, 2014
As anyone who watched the George Clooney’s recent blockbuster The Monuments Men can confirm, stealing art is no easy task. It requires rigorous foresight, careful planning and flawless execution, with a little bit of luck thrown in for good measure. That was certainly true for the World War II platoon tasked with rescuing great masterpieces from Nazi robbers – and it’s also true for the far less laudable and unwieldy criminals who engage in art theft today. But the act of stealing a piece of art is only one part of the crime. The international market for stolen art and antiquities has been estimated to be worth as much as AED 18 billion annually, placing it among the top global criminal enterprises after drug trafficking and the sale of illegal arms. It is commonplace for artworks to be worth tens of millions of dollars, making them an attractive target for thieves. “The reason people steal art is that it represents high value for low risk,” says Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, an international database of stolen and missing works of art. “You would not be able to steal anything of comparable value – cash or diamonds, for example – which tend to be well-protected and perhaps locked away in a vault.” art1 So how does the big business of art theft actually work? According to Richard Ellis, a UK-based art crime investigator who has been involved in many notable art recoveries, the number of money-making options open to art thieves is dictated by how important or famous the stolen object is. “Some 80 per cent of stolen art and antiques are taken from people’s homes and are not particularly well-known,” Ellis explains. “This permits the criminal to dispose of the property back in the art and antiques market. Openings to the market are numerous and include fairs, auctions, dealers and even online platforms like eBay.” On the other hand, if the stolen object is of museum quality or recorded in an inventory or database like the Art Loss Register, it is harder – perhaps even impossible – to sell it on the open market. But for many art thieves, stealing art isn’t just about converting it into hard cash. In their recovery work at the Art Loss Register, Radcliffe and his team have been surprised at the number of items still controlled by art thieves 20 years after the crime was committed. High-value artworks may be kept as a bargaining chip if the criminal is arrested on some other charge or as a show of prowess to other criminal organisations.


Some thieves may try to ransom artworks back to the institutions from where they were stolen – although this rarely works. More commonly, pilfered art is used as a form of currency on the black market, funding illicit activities like drug trafficking. An art snatcher with a penchant for high-value works could expect to get between three and ten per cent of a painting’s actual market value. Ellis points out that the thieves themselves tend to be mature, professional criminals who target art for its high return and have the criminal connections to monetise this. They are rarely art specialists and one tragic by-product of this illegal trade is that artworks often get irreparably damaged or destroyed. In an extreme case last summer, the mother of one of the three Romanian suspects who allegedly stole seven famous paintings from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum in October 2012 claimed that she had burned the artworks in a bid to hide the evidence and protect her son. “Of the high-value works that are stolen, the general pattern is that 20 per cent are never recovered because they have been damaged or hidden,” says Radcliffe.


To make things more complicated for the authorities, stolen art is usually removed from the country where it was robbed. For example, when the Art Loss Register recovers a piece of pillaged art, the general pattern is that it has passed through several different countries. With the overall recovery rate of stolen art only about 15 per cent, some argue that art theft is not taken as seriously as it should be. Not only does stealing art deprive individuals of their property and countries of their national patrimony, some cases may even cause the destruction of national monuments or the loss of research opportunities. And in a more sinister twist, it can be used to finance gun-running, drug deals and other unsavoury activities. Art theft is a crime against the public – and unless you are a sadistic, well-connected criminal of international renown it’s a murky underworld that we recommend you best avoid at all costs.