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Who steals Art (and what do they do with it)?

It might be romantic to think that Art is stolen by Art Lovers or perhaps by professionals to be secreted away in some anonymous billionaire’s private gallery.  This may well be true in some part, but sadly most Art is stolen my lovers of money not art.

You might be surprised to know that Art & Collectable theft is the third biggest criminal enterprise after drugs and arms dealing with some people estimating it’s worth between $4bn to $6bn per year  (although I wonder if Cyber Crime might now be creeping up there?).

The interesting matter is what does happen to the stolen art?  If it’s a metal sculpture it can be melted down for scrap, but how do thieves dispose of art that is widely publicised as stolen on various websites e.g. Art Loss Register?  Nowadays with so many registers of stolen art, a thief would have a hard time trying to sell it via an Auction house or Art Dealer.  The answer is varied– the Art can be used as an underground currency by criminals at a fraction of its traded value, or used as collateral for illegal activities.  Often the art is used as leverage for ransom – for an especially important item, the galleries will be asked to pay money for its safe return.  What a dilemma – paying the ransom encourages the behaviour, but the thought of losing the priceless work of art is too much for some galleries to bare.

I have paraphrased below an article written in the Art Loss Register posted 7 Jan 2013

Stolen Matisse Painting Recovered 25 Years after Theft

A previously stolen Matisse valued at $1M was recovered in London.

In May 1987, a burglar smashed his way into the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm with a sledgehammer, escaping with Henri Matisse’s Le Jardin (“The Garden”).

According to reports at the time, several attempts were made to ransom the painting or sell it back to the museum for exorbitant sums. The Museum did not give in to ransom demands. The Director was quoted as saying “Stolen artwork has no real value in the legitimate marketplace and will eventually resurface…it’s just a matter of waiting it out.”

For the next two decades, the trail apparently went cold and the whereabouts of the painting remained a mystery.

In late 2012 an art dealer in the UK was presented with a Matisse to look at, and after performing due diligence confirmed it was the stolen painting.  The artwork was recovered.

So, is the answer to avoid the ransom and wait it out?  I suspect it’s not so clear cut.  The Insurance Company would rather pay $100k to get the artwork returned than pay out $1m for a ‘destroyed’ painting, and yet no one wants to enable repeat criminal behaviour.  However, if the painting is only worth $50k then there would, I suspect, be little chance a ransom would be paid.

To use an analogy, I used to do work around Kidnap & Ransom insurance.  The experts in this space would treat it as a negotiation.  The Kidnapper simply wants money.  The trick is to give them enough to release the hostage unharmed but not too much to encourage repeat behaviour.  Maybe the fact is that it’s not black and white – I don’t envy the experts having to handle this type of situation with people or art.

Ultimately the real solution is to prevent the loss of art in the first place.