Statistics on art crime are unfortunately few and generally inaccurate. The reasons for this are detailed in ARCA's book, Art & Crime, and come down to a variety of factors.
- At a local level, most police are told to file stolen art with general stolen goods. This means that art thefts are lost among stolen property files and only those unusual or far-sighted police who set art thefts aside for filing, or choose to send files on to Interpol or national art police will be filed as art thefts, and can therefore be studied and constitute a portion of the national statistics.
- The legitimate market dollar value of artworks is a nebulous concept. One day a painting could be worth one million, another day two, another day seven-hundred thousand. It all depends on the stock market, the perceived demand of the art market for the object in question, the whims of a handful of individual collectors and museums. So to say that an artwork is worth X amount of money is untrue--it can only be stated that at one time this artwork, or a similar one, sold for X amount of money, and that this is the current best guess as to its value. Therefore it is useful only in terms of situating art crime at a general hierarchical level, and getting people to take it seriously.
- We know that reported art crimes represent only a fraction of the total number, the tip of the iceberg. Antiquities looted from the earth or the sea will only be discovered by happenstance, should an archaeologist or policeman happen upon a looted tomb in the wilderness, for instance. Even then, there is no way of knowing what was in the tomb to begin with, which is now stolen. Much fine art theft goes unreported, by museums which do not want to show their insecurity, by collectors who did not declare all of their collection to avoid luxury tax, by libraries or churches or archives that might not realize what is missing.
While the study of art crime is, necessarily, at this point more anecdotal than scientific, due to the poor, incomplete, and often inaccessible statistics, the major police forces agree on the extent and severity of art crime, and its links to Organized Crime, which make it a crime to take very seriously, indeed.
In ARCA's many projects and conferences, those with whom we have worked have conveyed the fact that art crime is the third-highest-grossing criminal trade, behind only drugs and arms, and have underlined with countless examples the links with Organized Crime since 1960. Organized Crime, which includes but is not limited to major Mafias (it also includes any group of three or more individuals working together in a diverse array of criminal enterprises for long-term collective goals), is responsible for some activity in the life of the crime. This is least often the theft or looting itself, which is done by mercenary burglars or local tomb raiders. But syndicates have the international networks necessary to take stolen objects off the hands of the thieves, smuggle them abroad, launder them, and sell them on. Because of this, art crime funds all of Organized Crime's other activities, from the drug and arms trade to terrorism.
Individuals from the major world art police have quoted these facts repeatedly, as have art criminals, lawyers, security staff, criminologists and more. But it is difficult to find published, publicly available statements to back this up. For anyone looking for a good, reliable source to cite when quoting information about art crime as the third-highest-grossing criminal trade, and the involvement of Organized Crime, need look no further than the US Department of Justice and the US Central Bureau of Interpol:
Cultural Property Crimes Program
The annual dollar value of art and cultural property theft is exceeded only by the trafficking in illicit narcotics and arms. The illegal trade of works of art and cultural property is as dangerous as these crimes. The criminal networks that traffic in the illicit sale of Works of Art and Cultural Property are often times the same circles that deal in illegal drug, arms dealing, and other illegal transactions. It has also been found recently that many insurgent and terrorist groups fund their operations through the sales and trade of stolen Works of Art and Cultural Property.