Published by Fred Williams
Posted on April 19, 2017
You may think art theft is a rare event that occurs at the homes of the very rich or at museums. In truth, it is the third largest criminal enterprise behind guns and drugs.
Art theft costs art owners about $6 billion dollars a year. The buying and selling of art is the largest unregulated business in the world. No one asks for proof, papers or any other certification when buying art, so thieves are free to sell anything they can get their hands on.
Between 50,000 and 100,00 pieces of art are stolen every year. As for sales figures for stolen art, any figure is an estimate, because there are no records of transactions, and there is no requirement to publicly announce the purchase of a piece of art.
Forget the glamorous images you have of art theft from movies. Here is the reality.
Art thieves don’t lower themselves into museums and twist their way past laser beams to avoid setting off alarms. They are the same people who commit petty crimes. One art thief was arrested for shoplifting a tube of toothpaste. Another entered a museum through a bathroom window. These are not high-tech, sophisticated people; they are common thieves that pawn stolen jewelry and live in constant fear of being charged under criminal law statutes.
Only 5% to 10% of stolen art is recovered. Part of the reason for that is the existence of illegal buyers. Otherwise respectable people are willing to buy stolen art.
Masterworks by famous artists are hard to sell. The notoriety frightens buyers away. Even if someone purchased a stolen masterpiece, it would be unwise to display it for fear of getting caught. Smaller works of art that are not as well known, however, may find a ready market.
Targeted heists are those that are aimed at acquiring a specific piece of art. The thief typically keeps the art or passes it along to a collector who paid for the theft.
Quick turnover theft is usually done during home burglaries. A burglar may grab pieces in hopes of selling them quickly.
Finally, there is a theft where art is hidden for a long period. The thief keeps the art until people forget about it, then sells it to a gallery.
Art theft happens so often, it has become big business. The glamor of Hollywood may cast art theft in a flattering light, but it is a harmful criminal activity that deprives many people of billions of dollars of property.