July 15, 2011

Arthur Tompkins on “Paying a Ransom: The Theft of 96 Rare Medals and the Reward Payments”

by Molly Cotter, ARCA Intern

Judge Arthur Tompkins opened the 3rd annual ARCA International Art Crime Conference with an engaging discussion on the positive and negative aspects of paying ransoms or rewards in order to recover stolen art. He utilized the 2007 theft of 96 rare medals from New Zealand’s National Army Museum, valued at NZ$5-$6 million, as a case study to examine the arguments in support of and against ransom payments. He first noted that readily paying a thief’s ransom may seem to be ideal solution. The art is returned quickly; it limits the potential for the work to be damaged; bad publicity for the institution is avoided; and the necessity of having to make, or pay out on, an insurance claim is prevented. In the New Zealand museum’s case, a substantial private reward was posted for information pertaining to the theft and the medals were returned within a few months.

Judge Arthur Tompkins
Amelia, Italy
Though this seems like a storybook ending, the arguments against ransom payments suggest that this behavior not only encourages, but endorses future crimes. If a ransom is paid or a reward given, the chance of a repeat offense is much greater. Also, it perpetuates the gentleman art thief myth, and reduces the level of moral turpitude attributable to the crime. Simply put by Judge Tompkins: “The thief is happy, the owner is happy, the police are happy, and some wealthy insurance company has paid, but will get its money back from its customers, so everyone wins.” The payer also becomes complicit in the crime, and the transparency of the transaction can be lessened.

Judge Tompkins also discussed the legal responses around the world to such crimes. In the most extreme examples such as in Italy and Colombia, ransom payments are illegal. Other countries only find it unlawful to offer a “no questions asked” reward; however, penalties for violating this often involve only a minimal fine.

A contemporary case-study of how ransom payments endorse crime is the activities of pirates off the coast of Somalia. As of mid December 2010, Somalia pirates were holding at least 35 ships, more than 650 hostages, and had earned nearly US$240 million through ransoms. Their system has become so sophisticated that there is even a piracy stock exchange, Judge Tompkins told the audience.

A systemized ransom/reward structure does encourage and sustain illegal activity, and the direct costs of recovering stolen art have a detrimental effect on collections and access to art, according to Judge Tompkins.  However, he noted, “Legal prohibitions of activities where there is a potential for profit involved, simply do not work,” and suggested that in an ideal world, a victimized individual or institution would pay the money, get the artwork returned, find and prosecute the thieves, and then recover the ransom payment.


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