by Brian R. Williams
What exactly comprises "art crime?" What does that phrase mean? As wide-ranging as art crime is—law enforcement agencies investigating recent thefts have shown that art crime is truly global—there is no formalized criminological approach to defining the phenomenon. Although art crime is almost as old as the history of art itself—even the ancient Romans (1) got into the art forgery business—the study of art crime in a statistical or criminological sense (2) is a relatively new construct.
As a graduate student studying the seemingly disparate disciplines of Criminology and the History of Art, I intend to shed some more light on the problem of art crime: to understand how it impacts our society, why thieves and con artists target the art industry, and how historians, curators and law enforcement agencies can solve these cases and protect our shared cultural heritage.
Let's take a look at a recent case: the break-in last year at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, France. Sometime in the early morning hours of May 20, 2010, a lone thief (3) broke into the museum through a ground-floor window at the rear of the building. The city had just spent $24 million updating the museum's security system, but it was malfunctioning at the time of the robbery. It had been offline for three weeks before the break-in. The interior surveillance cameras were working though—at least one intruder was captured on film—but the outside cameras were inexplicably pointed up to the roof (4). Without a working security system, the three guards on duty that night were the museum's last line of defense, but they reported that they saw nothing.
The thief was inside the museum for fifteen minutes and left out the same ground-floor window with five paintings:
- Dove with Green Peas, (1911) by Picasso, worth $32 million,
- Olive Tree near L'Estaque, (1906) by Georges Braque, worth $24 million,
- Still Life with a Candlestick, (1922) by Fernand Leger, worth $24 million,
- Woman with a Fan, (1919) by Modigliani, worth $24 million,
- and Pastoral, (1905) by Henri Matisse, worth $21 million.
Despite getting in and out so quickly, the thief had time to carefully remove each painting from its frame and pack them into a single bundle before exiting through the same window he entered. The paintings had been hung in several galleries on opposite sides of the museum, strongly suggesting that he had knowledge of the building's layout as well as a "shopping list" of which paintings he had come to steal. And the fact that the thief removed the paintings from their frames so quickly suggests that he may have experience framing pictures.
The discovery of the theft at 7 am the following morning prompted the museum community to immediately express shock and outrage. Pierre Cornette de Saint-Cyr, the head of the Palais de Tokyo Museum in Paris, taunted the thief or thieves in a television interview. "These five paintings are unable to be sold," he said (5). "So, thieves, sirs, you are imbeciles. Now return them."
Paris' art community may rightly be upset, but they shouldn't be surprised. The museum's near-total lack of security left it open and vulnerable to attack. Furthermore, "Nobody at either City Hall or the museum would speculate on insurance – prompting speculation that there was none," wrote Peter Allen for the Daily Mail Online. "'It may well be that the security was considered good enough,' said a member of staff at the museum."
I mention this case because it shares common elements with many other museum robberies:
- an inadequate security system
- a guard staff that is less than diligent
- thieves who are familiar with the target and have planned ahead
- paintings worth many millions of dollars (not to mention their value as irreplaceable objects of cultural significance) that are uninsured and left virtually unguarded
- a shocked and bewildered museum staff left not knowing what hit them
Statistically, high-profile heists like this one are easier to solve, mainly because the paintings are so well-known that the thieves find them impossible to sell, even on the black market. But as of this writing, the case is still unsolved and these paintings have not yet been recovered.
Economically speaking, art crime is a booming business. Art crime is often cited as the fourth largest criminal enterprise worldwide (6), after the drug trade, money laundering and arms sales. The FBI (7) estimates that art theft is a $6 billion a year business. This number is merely an estimate, though. Scholars such as Mark Durney at Art Theft Central (8) have shown that this $6 billion figure may be out-of-date. The actual number may be much higher, given the astronomical rise of art prices since the late 1960s, when this number was generated.
But what's important to understand is that art crime doesn't exist in a bubble. It is often linked with other types of criminal activity, in the sense that criminals who rob banks or engage in drug or weapons trafficking are also involved in art crime. The diagram below shows that art crime runs the gamut from thefts and museum heists, to illicit artifact smuggling and the destruction of cultural sites, to forgeries and fraud.
You would think that since art crime is often linked with other serious violent crimes, that this would create an incentive for governments and law enforcement agencies to take art crime seriously. But most police departments are unable (due to budget constraints) or unwilling (due to the perceived notion that art crimes are not serious crimes) to devote time, resources and manpower to solving art crimes. Only the world's largest agencies—such as the FBI, Scotland Yard and Italy's Carabinieri—have been able to pursue cases of art theft and fraud. In recent years, though, despite these police departments showing that art crime is linked to other more serious crimes, they have seen their art crime units diminished. The exception is the Carabinieri, which has the oldest and largest art theft squad in the world. In 2009 alone, the Carabinieri recovered nearly 60,000 stolen works of art, totaling $235 million.
Although art-related crimes present unique challenges to law enforcement agencies, they can still be explained using conventional criminological theory, such as the Routine Activities Theory presented by Cohen & Felson in 1979.
Criminologists Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson were studying the crime rate in the United States between the late 1940s and the mid 1970s. Cohen, Felson and other criminologists noticed that the crime rate in the middle of the 20th century was increasing, but so were the economical conditions in the country. They theorized that crime was therefore not caused by social forces such as poverty and that most crimes were not committed by life-long criminals or evil people, but by average citizens from every population demographic who are simply taking advantage of an opportunity, often in the course of their every-day activities.
The basis of Cohen & Felson's theory is that there must be three factors present in order for crime to occur: a motivated offender, a suitable target (such as a victim or an object of value) and a lack of effective guardianship. Take one of these three variables out of the equation and a crime will not occur. An example would be a customer in a store who sees a high-value item on a shelf and waits until none of the store employees are looking before grabbing the item and walking out of the store without paying. But in a store where the employees are diligent and watchful, it is less likely that a would-be shoplifter will have the opportunity to steal.
Let's examine the three variables in Cohen & Felsen's Routine Activities Theory one at a time, as they relate to art crime:
Popular theories abound as to what an art thief looks like and how he acts, and they usually portray them as either a cultured aficionado or an evil genius; in other words, not your everyday, run-of-the-mill thief. Hollywood has capitalized on these urban legends. The Thomas Crown Affair presents Pierce Brosnan's titular character as a handsome, bored billionaire (in serious need of a hobby) who breaks into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to steal the most expensive painting in their collection, only to stealthily return it a few days later. But there is not a shred of evidence that art thefts are committed by wealthy individuals merely for the sake of excitement. Like every other type of thief, art thieves are motivated by greed and nothing else.
There is also the persistent "Dr. No Theory," named after the James Bond villain who keeps his collection of looted paintings in a secret lair, purely for the sake of his personal enjoyment. But this is not supported by empirical evidence either. Not a single stolen painting has ever been rescued from the secret vault of a monomaniacal villain.
There is no archetype that describes all art thieves. As Robert Wittman, former head of the FBI's Art Crime Unit, notes in his autobiography Priceless, "art theft is rarely about the love of art or the cleverness of the crime…The art thieves I met in my career ran the gamut—rich, poor, smart, foolish, attractive, grotesque. Yet nearly all of them had one thing in common: brute greed. They stole for money, not beauty."
Here is a short list of some famous art thieves to show how diverse they are, from their backgrounds to their M.O.:
- Myles Connor is perhaps the greatest modern American art thief. Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Connor started breaking into museums in the mid 1960s. He often changed his methods from job to job; sometimes he would hide in the museum until it closed, or he would impersonate a rich collector, befriend the curatorial staff and get himself invited into the museum's storage areas. When he broke into Boston's Children's Museum, he climbed up onto the roof and rappelled down to a third-story window. Connor is very knowledgeable of art, and would often study the museum's layout and security system before striking. His boldest heist, though, was an armed daytime robbery at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He and an associate ran into the museum through a side door, grabbed a Rembrandt off the wall, and fled. He later used the stolen painting as a bargaining chip to reduce a prison sentence for an unrelated crime.
- Martin Cahill was the leader of Dublin, Ireland's criminal underworld in the 1980s. In 1986, at the height of his power, he and his entourage stole 18 paintings from Russborough House, a stately manor house in the countryside south of Dublin. The Irish police with the help of Scotland Yard and international agencies eventually recovered all but two of the stolen paintings. The Cahill investigation uncovered an intricate web of underworld connections that thieves use to trade stolen art for drugs or money. Some of the stolen Russborough paintings were smuggled out of Ireland via criminal channels and ended up as far away as Istanbul, Turkey. The stolen Russborough Vermeer was recovered in an undercover sting in Antwerp, Belgium.
- Russborough house was also targeted by the IRA (9). In 1974, before Cahill's break-in, the IRA stormed the manor house armed with automatic weapons and stole 19 paintings. The police caught up with the loot a week later. The IRA may have been involved in the unsolved 1990 robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
- In 2004, masked thieves walked boldly into the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway and stole 2 paintings at gunpoint: Munch's Madonna and The Scream. It was the middle of the day, and the museum was filled with visitors. Despite being well-armed, the thieves likely were amateurs who had no idea what to do with paintings so famous once they got them; as a result, the men were caught and the paintings were recovered and returned to the museum. This case, though, illustrates that there is not much a museum can do to stop thieves who want a painting badly enough.
- Perhaps the most unlikely of thieves was Vincenzo Perugia, who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. He hid in a closet overnight and walked out of the museum the next morning with the painting tucked under his coat. Perugia hid the Mona Lisa in his apartment a few blocks from the Louvre for two years before trying to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. He had never stolen anything before the Mona Lisa, and his motives are still unclear.
Separate from thieves, art forgers comprise a substantial portion of art crime cases. But art forgers also support Cohen & Felson's Routine Activities Theory: criminals who exhibit traits common to a wide range of the general population and who are distinctive only in their ordinariness. Art forgers are often legitimate artists at first, but, for various reasons, decide to start producing fakes.
Art forgery could be considered the "white-collar crime" of the art industry. White-collar crime is relatively overlooked by news outlets compared to more sensational cases of violent crime, but it is in fact more destructive to society because a single case can victimize dozens or hundreds of people. White-collar criminals are by nature more likely to get away with their crimes, due either to their powerful positions in society (CEOs, politicians, etc.) or their ability to hide their crimes from the police. The same parallel can be drawn when studying cases of art fraud. Individual forgers have infiltrated the art market with hundreds of fakes, whereas art thieves typically get away with a half-dozen or so paintings. A skilled art forger may be able to perpetrate their crime for years before being caught, if they are even caught at all.
The late, great Thomas Hoving, who was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for ten years and a world-famous fakebuster, once predicted that as much as 40% of the artwork in the market is either so heavily "restored" that they cannot be considered originals or are outright fakes.
- Han van Meegeren is often given the honor of being called the "greatest forger of the 20th century." It certainly wasn't because his fakes were convincing copies of the artists he was forging: they were in fact nothing like the originals. He sold no fewer than eight "Vermeers" in the 1930s, convincing art historians that they had discovered Vermeer's missing early period. Paradoxically, it was because his forgeries were not close copies that he was able to succeed. Van Meegeren was no Vermeer; this was evident when he first attempted to closely emulate the master's style. Surprisingly, he was not caught because his paintings were poor imitations—he confessed to being a forger after he was arrested for selling what the authorities thought was an original Vermeer to Nazi commander Hermann Goering. In post-war Holland, selling an object of national heritage was a treasonable offense. It is reported that Goering was heartbroken to hear that his beloved Vermeer was a fake.
- Eric Hebborn caused a panic in the art world in the early 1980s when he confessed to infiltrating the auction market with hundreds of forged master drawings. He eventually published two books about his life as an art forger: Drawn to Trouble, his autobiography, and The Art Forger's Handbook, in which he revealed his trade secrets. Hebborn was unrepentant and accused art dealers of being the real crooks. He claimed that dealers knew the drawings they were selling were fakes but sold them anyway. "No drawing can lie of itself," said Hebborn. "It is only the opinion of the expert that can deceive." Hebborn was murdered in Italy in 1996 while promoting the Italian edition of The Art Forger's Handbook.
- One of the most destructive cases of art forgery was committed by a British two-man team: John Myatt and John Drewe. In the late 1980s, Myatt, a single father struggling to make ends meet, posted an ad in a magazine offering to paint copies of famous paintings for people. John Drewe answered the ad, requesting Myatt to make some paintings in the style of Matisse. Drewe continued to buy more painting copies from Myatt: Matisses, Giacomettis, Braques and others. But after a while, Myatt realized that Drewe was selling his copies to third parties as originals. Despite his guilt, Myatt went along with the scam for years. But what Myatt did not know was that Drewe had taken his forgery scam a step further: he was gaining access to the archives at prestigious museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery and inserting forged documentation that would convince anyone suspicious of Myatt's forgeries that they were authentic. Scotland Yard eventually closed in on the duo, and Myatt confessed. To this day, though, nobody is sure how much damage Drewe caused to the museum archives.
Why do thieves target art? In a nutshell, because art
- is very valuable, and
- is easy to steal.
The price of art has risen astronomically in the second half of the 20th century. Records are broken every year, and the art market is seemingly impervious to dips in the economy, which is not true for other markets such as housing or other luxury items. Also, when a painting sells for a fortune, it makes headlines. Painting prices also make headlines when one is stolen. Therefore, newspapers confirm the value of the stolen painting for the thieves as well as for any unscrupulous buyers.
A few notable examples of how much the value of paintings have increased:
- Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet was bought in 1897 for 300 francs, but sold at auction in 1990 for $82.5 million. (Incidentally, this painting's whereabouts are currently unknown.)
- Picasso's Garçon á la Pipe was bought in 1950 for $30,000 but sold in 2004 for $104 million.
- Gustav Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I holds the current record for the world's most expensive painting. It was sold to Robert Lauder (of Estee Lauder) for $135 million. That much money would have bought Lauder a mansion in Aspen, Colorado.
The record-high prices of paintings have not gone unnoticed by organized criminal cartels. As previously mentioned, investigators believe that since the 1960s—about the time painting prices began climbing—organized crime has been responsible for the majority of art thefts.
Artwork is easier to smuggle across international borders than, say, a truck full of weapons, a shipment of cocaine or stolen money, because it is not illegal to possess art. Therefore, criminal cartels trade stolen paintings for other illicit commodities on the black market, according to Maja Pertot Bernard at the Art Loss Register (10). Even if a criminal cartel trades a stolen painting worth $100 million for a shipment of black-market drugs or weapons worth only $10 million, they did not lose any money in the transaction because it cost them nothing to acquire the painting.
Lack of Effective Guardianship
There will always be motivated offenders, because art is such a suitable target. So, museums must play defense in order to protect their collections. The "Effective Guardianship" factor in Cohen & Felson's crime formula is the factor that is the easiest to control, but this is also where museums are most vulnerable. Museums are appealing for thieves when compared to other institutions charged with protecting valuables, such as banks. Banks keep their valuables locked away in secure vaults, but museums hang their valuables on the wall and invite the public to come in and look at them.
It may seem incredible, but many museums and private collectors do not insure their valuable art collections against theft. Part of the reason is that an insurance policy for a painting worth many millions of dollars is prohibitively expensive for most museums, let alone a policy for an entire collection. Besides, a masterpiece is a one-of-a-kind; insurance money would not be able to buy a replacement. Insurance money would be able to be used to hire private investigators, though, since it would be in the insurer's best interest to recover the stolen artwork.
There have been cases of museums using insurance money to pay ransoms, but not a single museum has publicly admitted to this, for obvious reasons (11). It is not uncommon, though, for a museum to offer a reward for anyone with information leading to the recovery of stolen paintings. There is an as-of-yet unclaimed $5 million reward for the stolen Gardner art. But, despite such a persuasive monetary incentive, not a single person has ever come forward.
So, a museum's best protection against theft is its security system and guard staff. Some museums, such as the Dallas Museum of Art, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Alfred and David Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, have state-of-the-art security systems. But Steven Keller, a cultural property security consultant, believes that even the most up to date security system is not as effective as a well-trained, diligent guard staff. "Technology is fine, but we need to get back to basics and pay attention to guards, training, procedures, supervision, and patrols," says Keller.
A museum's guard staff may be its greatest strength, but it can also be its greatest weakness. Even if the security system at the Paris Museum of Modern Art was not working, the theft may have been thwarted if the guards were routinely patrolling the property. Here are a few other famous thefts that were helped by poorly-trained guard staffs:
- The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was robbed in 1990 by two thieves who impersonated Boston police officers in order to get inside. The Museum's guard staff was instructed never to let anyone in for any reason, but the thieves' disguises apparently convinced the guards on duty that night to open the door for them. The guards—young college students earning little more than minimum wage—later admitted to letting friends into the museum for after-hours parties, and one guard confessed to coming to work high. The thieves got away with $500 million worth of artwork, making it the greatest robbery of any kind in American history. The case is still unsolved.
- The National Gallery in Oslo, Norway was robbed of its most famous painting, The Scream, in 1994 (This is a different museum and a different version of The Scream than the one stolen in 2004). The thieves broke into the museum through a second-floor window. The entire robbery was caught on video, which was playing on a monitor in the guard's office, but he never noticed. The alarm went off when the thieves smashed the window, but the guard simply reached over and turned it off. The broken window was finally noticed by a passing police car. The thieves left a postcard on the floor of the gallery that read, "Thanks for the poor security."
Many theft cases show that a museum's biggest threat is not even an outside assailant. Keller estimates that 85% of museum thefts are inside jobs.
- The Iraq Museum in Baghdad was looted in 2003. It was first reported that the museum was emptied of its collection by looters who broke in during the chaos of the American invasion, but the investigation revealed that the majority of the objects—about 15,000 small artifacts, or roughly 3% of the museum's holdings—were stolen from locked basement storage cabinets, accessible to only a half-dozen museum employees.
So often it has been shown that an art thief's best ally is a museum's security staff! It's a wonder museums are not robbed more frequently.
In light of these disheartening accounts, the odds seem stacked against museums. This is why it is more important than ever for law enforcement agencies to take art crime seriously. These cases have shown that art thieves are resourceful and determined. They show that thieves take advantage of the high value of art as well as its ease of transport across international borders. They show that thieves capitalize on the vulnerability of museum security systems and guard staffs. And they show that when thieves target a specific museum—such as the Gardner, Oslo's National Gallery, Baghdad's Iraq Museum, or the Museum of Modern Art in Paris—the museum does not stand a chance. This has to change.
We have not looked at many other aspects of art crime—such as artifact smuggling, wartime looting, and the intentional destruction of objects of cultural significance—which only serves to illustrate how wide-ranging and pervasive of a problem it is for society. Like many other aspects of our culture, art crime has gone global; it can no longer be viewed as this or that country's problem. Therefore, it requires the cooperation and action of all nations to combat it.
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Connor, M. J., & Siler, J. (2009). Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Art Thief, Rock-and-Roller, and Prodigal Son. New York: HarperCollins.
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Salisbury, L., & Sujo, A. (2009). Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art. New York: Penguin Press.
Scotti, R.A. (2009). Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
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1, 2: Retrieved March 26, 2011.
3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9: Retrieved January 11, 2011.
8: Retrieved on October 2, 2011.
10, 11: Retrieved on January 18, 2011.