The Dark Side of the Art World
Stolen art and what happens to it

On a sunny L.A morning earlier this month, ten Andy Warhol paintings were stolen from the house of the wealthy businessman and art collector, Richard Weisman. The multimillion dollar collection comprises portraits of sport stars including Muhammad Ali, OJ Simpson, and PelĂ©. Incredibly, the rest of Weisman’s property, which includes masterpieces by Picasso and Warhol, remained untouched – police reported that there was no sign of forced entry. “This was a very clean crime,”
noted Detective Mark Sommer of the LAPD. “For some reason they had an interest in [only the sports] collection.” There is a $1 million reward being offered for the collection, but heavy speculation remains over whether the collection will ever be found.
This then raises an essential question: Why is famous art stolen and what actually happens to stolen famous art? Art theft is a lucrative business seeped in romanticism from Hollywood’s museum heists in The Thomas Crown Affair and the James BondfilmDr.No.Filmssuchasthese present a myth-like possibility that there’s a fabulously rich mastermind surrounded by pieces of stolen artwork hiding somewhere in seclusion,
Hollywood suggests Switzerland or deserted islands as possible locations.
Unfortunately, real life is never as glamorous as it is in the movies.
One major problem with stealing famous works of art, like Mr. Weisman’s Warhols for example, is that since they are so easily identifiable and well documented, it becomes almost impossible to find a legitimate buyer - especially after the publicity a museum theft receives. Tobias Meyer, the international director at Sotheby’s auction house, was quoted in the Independent saying just that.
“The art world has become so transparent, and all these works are so traceable, ultimately they become an untradeable asset.” In fact, some famous stolen pieces of art even end up abandoned or just stashed away and later found by authorities. Recent cases include last February, when Swiss police recovered a Monet and a Van gogh, abandoned in the back of a white sedan in a hospital parking lot. The pair are worth about $70 million and were stolen from zurich’s Eg Buehrle Collection nine days earlier. Another painting by paul Cezanne entitled “Bouteille et Fruits” was recovered in 2004 after spending 20 years in a bank vault.
Organizations such as the Art Loss Register, an international database where stolen art can be reported and museums and galleries can check before purchasing, have helped recover various stolen works of art and acts as a deterrent to thieves wanting to sell them in the open market. INTERpOL and the FBI also have specialized teams that specialize in recovering stolen cultural artifacts.
Despite attempts to prevent the trafficking of artwork around the globe, the United Nations Educational,
Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) estimates that the black market in stolen cultural property accounts for about $6 billion US annually. The consensus from research and law enforcement groups is that most stolen art is used by organized criminals in the drug trade, used to settle debts, or act as leverage in other black market deals. In his publication entitled “Chasing Doctor No:
Art Crime Fact and Fiction”, Noah Charney, director of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art,
gives a clear picture of stolen art’s relationship with organized crime:
“Stolen art enters a closed barter market between criminal syndicates who equate it with its potential resale value on the black market (7-10% of its actual estimated value at auction) and swap it or use it as collateral for equivalent value of other illicit goods, such as drugs or arms. Only if they actually try to sell it for cash is there a real chance that the criminals will be caught. If there is a collector who ends up with the object, we can profile them. But if it is just moved from one storehouse to another, is almost impossible to track down. In this way, stolen art becomes a form of currency on the black market.
Even though I won’t go into depth about them here, looted archaeo logical works also contribute greatly to the illegitimate trade of cultural property. Sites in Latin America and parts of Asia are particularly vul nerable due to lax law enforcement when it comes to cultural property.
Iraq and Afghanistan have particularly suffered over the past few years due to war, which has made their museums and cultural sites open ground for looting. For example,
Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a US Marine who led the American government’s investigation into the theft and looting of the Iraq National Museum in 2003, concluded in a press briefing to the Pentagon that over 170 000 works had been taken. In these cases the trouble is that some antiques and archaeological works of art are not well documented or catalogued. This makes it more difficult to determine whether they have been stolen and raising the potential that they will be bought unknowingly of their origin.
personally, as someone who has studied art history for four years and works at the Vancouver Art gallery,
art theft reduces some of humanity’s most beautiful expressions of ingenuity and skill to mere commodities,
only recognized for monetary value.
Hollywood’s glamorization of this kind of criminal activity does nothing to actually explain how damaging and frankly un-glamorous art theft is. There are many people out there who treat cultural property theft with due seriousness, but popular culture,
particularly, film fails to do so. For example, this year’s the Maiden heist,
starring Christopher Walken and Morgan Freeman, is about museum security guards who steal works of art. It ultimately fails to print an ac curate picture of the world of stolen art. A more accurate picture is that the thieves don’t care about art be hind the works and collectors don’t care to pay for something that has lost all monetary value.

Claudia Pedrero has been writing her column on arts and culture for the Capilano Courier for two years

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