And while the question of how to apprehend art thieves has long vexed law enforcement around the world, pioneering financial technologies offer promising ways to help return stolen works to their owners.
The best way to catch an art thief is in the act, but museums, churches and temples often lack the funds for robust security, to say nothing of the war zones from which many antiquities are looted. And so, loose, opportunistic, international networks of smugglers, thieves-for-hire and unscrupulous dealers facilitate a trade in billions of dollars of stolen art each year, making the illicit art market the world’s third-largest criminal enterprise, behind only narcotics and arms trafficking.
Once a thief makes a getaway, only a small fraction of what’s stolen is ever recovered.
Savvy thieves focus first on muddying a piece’s provenance. The value of a marquee work plummets right after its disappearance—it is too risky to try and unload a filched Rauschenberg or Raphael whose disappearance is making headlines—so many thieves and dealers wait to sell, sometimes years, often stashing pieces in warehouses in tax-free ports and bribing customs officials to look the other way. Forged provenance documents often accompany the work as it returns to the open market, sometimes misrepresenting it as having come from a collection in a safe location rather than a war zone.
Some thieves try to negotiate with insurance companies, for it makes more sense for them to pay a finder’s fee than it does to cover the open-market value of the loss. Others try to trade art for drugs—one Quebec City drug bust turned up 2,500 stolen paintings along with 25 kilos of cocaine, while in Antwerp, a Vermeer was used as collateral for cash to buy £1 million of wholesale heroin.
But law enforcement does not prioritize the pursuit of stolen art, seeing the theft as a relatively victimless crime. Many countries keep registers of stolen art, but don’t share it, which makes it easier for thieves to sell stolen pieces across borders. Interpol does have a database, but it is not particularly robust.
Financial Technology Is A Double-Edged Sword
Private companies have stepped in to fill the void. The Art Loss Register allows dealers and owners to register their art, and potential buyers to search their database for a fee. The nonprofit Artive also runs a database, which focuses on technological solutions for protecting cultural property.
Technology’s significantly changed the way stolen art is sold and traced. “The internet has been a double-edged sword,” says Christopher Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery International. “It has allowed criminals to sell stolen works easily to unsuspecting buyers on open marketplaces like eBay and Facebook.” Digital speed is also a factor, says Artive COO Ariane Moser: “Imagine you could sell a stolen good before it’s even reported stolen.”
But the internet also makes finding stolen art easier. It enables dealers to check databases before making a purchase, whereas previously they would have had no reliable way to know about anything but the most famous of missing works. The Art Dealers Association of America devised a system of passing around Xeroxes of theft alerts in the 1960s, but that old-school infrastructure was hardly quicker than the thieves. Today, databases like the Art Loss Registry and Artive make it far more difficult for thieves to sell their illicit wares to unsuspecting gallerists, curators and individuals.
Financial technology is a similarly double-edged sword: “Generally, Bitcoin and digital currencies have made it easier to purchase stolen and looted objects and much more difficult to follow the money,” Marinello says. “Lots of people think it [Bitcoin] will be wonderful for provenance. At present it’s an unproven technology.”
Banks are still a key resource in tracing stolen art. They know their clients, they can do due diligence and they can help flag suspicious transactions: “In 1970, the first million-pound painting was sold,” says Robert Wittman, founder and CEO of an eponymous art recovery and security firm. “Now the value of paintings can be up in the hundreds of millions. Today, when people are moving that much money—$10–20 million, more—there’s a record. Those can lead backwards to the thieves, and can also point to rings.”
The financial records of a work can also lead to thieves and forgers. Wittman pointed to the case of New York’s storied Knoedler Gallery selling fake Rothkos, in which the financial valuation was a tip-off that the works were not legitimate: “The fact that these paintings were selling for far less than other similar paintings was the clue to the lack of authenticity.”
Ultimately, finances are only one tool in an art hunter’s arsenal. Pre-loss collection documentation, registration in the appropriate databases, monitoring the market post-loss and increased transparency in the famously opaque art world are also essential for curtailing art crime.
It is understandable that limited law-enforcement resources are often diverted away from art crime, which is typically not violent. But to its victims—including people who have lost valuable assets, countries that have lost irreplaceable parts of their cultural heritage and victims of attacks by terrorists financed by stolen art—it is no less devastating. We’re all indebted to the people and companies stepping up to assist the victims, and we’re owed continual vigilance from the art world and the public alike to keep works hanging where they belong.