The pros and cons of stealing fine art: An easy crime, but impossible to sell

It’s not that hard to steal art, even from museums, but it’s almost impossible to translate that art into cash.

ThinkStock Photos
Representative image.
By James Tarmy

Ten days ago, a Banksy print valued at about $40,000 was stolen from a Canadian exhibit of the artist’s work. It was a seemingly effortless crime—a man walked in, took the work off the wall, and walked out—but then, most art crimes are. The heavy lifting comes later.

“The main rule is that it’s not that hard to steal art, even from museums, but it’s almost impossible to translate that art into cash,” says Noah Charney, a scholar and author who’s published multiple books on art theft. Paintings can be quickly cut out of frames, and small sculptures can be tucked into bags—even jewelry can be secreted away—but finding a buyer for your art or diamonds is often impossible.


“Criminals don’t understand that, because their knowledge of art crime is based on fiction and films,” Charney says.

There are exceptions, of course, including a much-reported theft from March 2017 when four men from an Arabic-Kurdish crime family in Germany broke into Berlin’s Bode Museum and stole a 221-pound gold coin made by the Canadian Mint. Using DNA testing, the German police managed to hunt down and arrest the men in less than four months (one of them had worked as a security guard in the museum), but the coin was long gone.

The theft was notable, not just because the perpetrators were caught—a rarity in itself—but because they’d allegedly managed to sell what they stole for a significant sum of money.

ADVERTISEMENT
If art thieves knew how hard it really was to sell the art they’d stolen, Charney says, there would almost certainly be far fewer art thefts.

The Good News (If You’re a Thief)
“We’re very bad at catching art thieves,” says Charney. “We have a very low recovery and prosecution rate: Something like 1.5 percent of cases of art theft see the art recovered and the criminal prosecuted.”

So, should a thief have a buyer waiting in the wings, or simply want a painting or art object for himself, there’s a very good chance he’ll get away with it. Add to that the cachet of being an art thief (“Art’s always been associated with the social elite, so it’s an aspirational thing” to take, Charney explains), and stealing art seems like a pretty good deal.

The Bad News
ADVERTISEMENT
If you don’t have a buyer before you steal the work, you’re in trouble.

“People assume that they’ll find criminal art collectors,” Charney says, “when in fact, we have very few historical examples—maybe a dozen to 20 who fit the bill.” Keep in mind that many hundreds of art objects are stolen every year. Those, needless to say, are bad odds.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Worse News
“When people don’t find those criminal buyers, they end up offering stolen stuff to people who look like the criminals they’re expecting to find,” Charney says. “And those people always end up being undercover police.”

In other words, people often steal art thinking they can sell it, realize that it’s not so easy (if it were, everyone who wanted to be a legitimate art dealer would be rich), end up doing a low-key but obviously indiscreet marketing effort to attempt to sell the art, and get caught.

Nature, Interrupted: 8 Art Installations That Talk Green
1/7
Climate change, depleting water tables, growing carbon footprints. A bunch of artists recently took up the cause of the environment to highlight green concerns.

And the result was an impressive collection of art installations, created by eight artists from across the country, displayed at the Hungarian Information Cultural Centre (HICC) in the Capital.

Here: 'Red Leaf', by ceramic artist Rahul Modak, looks at biodegradable waste in a new light. The dry leaves hint at a new life, while the colour symbolises 'reincarnation'. The tutelage covering a bucolic passageway leads towards an unknown destination, invoking hope.
Climate change, depleting water tables, growing carbon footprints. A bunch of artists recently took up the cause of the environment to highlight green concerns. And the result was an impressive coll..
Read More
Artist Puja Bahri reused and recycled an older installation work to question who is behind the damage on the environment. Her repertoire includes paintings, digital and video art, and sculpture, in a semi realistic style and a mix of abstraction and figuration.
Artist Puja Bahri reused and recycled an older installation work to question who is behind the damage on the environment. Her repertoire includes paintings, digital and video art, and sculpture, in a..
Read More
Devika Swaroop's 'chal' - which in Hindi means to walk, and is also an informal usage of construction implying work flow - reflects on the condition how haphazard, economic development is causing long-term damage to the environment. Through the installation, she drives home the point that a growing concrete jungle has resulted in a shrinking ecosystem.
Devika Swaroop's 'chal' - which in Hindi means to walk, and is also an informal usage of construction implying work flow - reflects on the condition how haphazard, economic development is causing lon..
Read More
Sculptor Balagopalan used his installation, 'This too shall pass', to delve into the relationship between human beings and nature. He explores an idea of slowness that contradicts the fast, linear mode of experiencing life in urban contexts. In the contemporary world, there is an awareness about the gradual degradation of nature and the need to conserve it for future generations which often is in conflict with the urban, materialistic mode of life.
Sculptor Balagopalan used his installation, 'This too shall pass', to delve into the relationship between human beings and nature. He explores an idea of slowness that contradicts the fast, linear mo..
Read More
Artists Shubhangi and Harinder worked in collaboration on the interactive installation, using foam of gas cylinders, found tree branches. The installation poses questions on the effects of consumerism and the future.
Artists Shubhangi and Harinder worked in collaboration on the interactive installation, using foam of gas cylinders, found tree branches. The installation poses questions on the effects of consumeris..
Read More
Anoop Panicker turned to the Himalayan ranges and mythology for inspiration. His work 'Myth and Coexistence' that depicts a web made of cotton ropes between two trees with an image of an ant hill in the centre.
Anoop Panicker turned to the Himalayan ranges and mythology for inspiration. His work 'Myth and Coexistence' that depicts a web made of cotton ropes between two trees with an image of an ant hill in ..
Read More
Through mud, bamboo and cloth, Abhinav Yagnik raises concerns about irresponsible corporate agriculture that is destroying the soil's fertility. The interior of the structure also borrows formal qualities of Acacia auriculiformis fruit. Acacia, a foreign tree, was brought to the Indian subcontinent from Australia in the 1940s. Being from a harsh environment, the tree does not allow the local vegetation in India to thrive.

The installation, a narrow passage with two openings, is made out of locally-sourced biodegradable material. The viewer enters into the passage walks through it, physically experiences the form and structure. Since the passage is narrow, there is discomfort while passing through it.
Through mud, bamboo and cloth, Abhinav Yagnik raises concerns about irresponsible corporate agriculture that is destroying the soil's fertility. The interior of the structure also borrows formal qual..
Read More

Even if criminals aren’t desperate enough to start hawking their wares to strangers, once they discover that there isn’t a large group of shady businessmen willing to spend “whatever it takes” for a mediocre landscape painting, they fall back on a Plan B: “The backup plan is to ransom it back to the victim, or the insurance company,” Charney explains.

But given that this tactic is a clear sign of desperation, the victim/insurance company is in an almost unassailable negotiating position, which results, at least historically, in the ransom being reported to the police and the criminal getting caught.

“There really is no Plan B,” Charney says. “Unless it’s gold.”

And that leads us to the only real solution for thieves: steal something you can turn into something else, like the gold coin in Berlin. Charney cites the 2004 theft of a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, valued at about 3 million pounds ($3.98 million).

The sculpture weighed about two tons, “and it was almost certainly chopped up and melted down, then converted to ball bearings,” Charney says. Hertfordshire police determined it was cut up on the night of the heist, moved through various scrap dealers, and shipped abroad. The raw material was worth just about 1,500 pounds.

This might seem like a raw deal to most, but Charney says you should look at it from the thieves’ perspective: “They’re going to say, I worked for three hours in one night and got 1,500 pounds.”

In the case of the Berlin coin theft, the thieves were in a similar position with a much more valuable commodity than bronze. Police suspect that the group melted the coin down and sold the gold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Of course, that’s a fraction of its intact cultural value,” Charney says. “There’s almost never been a criminal who knew about, or cared about, art.”
Download
The Economic Times Business News App
for the Latest News in Business, Sensex, Stock Market Updates & More.
READ MORE
ADVERTISEMENT

READ MORE:

LOGIN & CLAIM

50 TIMESPOINTS

More from our Partners

Loading next story
Text Size:AAA
Success
This article has been saved

*

+