In the BBC's "Art Crime: The seedy reality behind the myth" (November 13), "Alastair Sooke, art critic for The Daily Telegraph, covers "Daring heists have a glamorous image. But in truth, the billion-dollar black market is a far dirtier business". As part of his research, he attended ARCA's symposium last week at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
“The myth of the sophisticated, art-loving Hollywood gentleman art thief is nothing like the real thing,” says Dick Ellis, a career detective with London’s Metropolitan Police. He set up the Art and Antiques Squad at New Scotland Yard in 1989, and was involved in the recovery of a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, after it had been stolen from the first floor of the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994 by two thieves who gained access by using a ladder and breaking a glass window, before leaving a postcard in Norwegian: “Thanks for the poor security”. “In reality, art thieves are professional criminals who view art and antiques as a soft touch, offering potentially high rewards and/or the ability to utilise the asset as a form of collateral to fund other areas of criminal activity.”
In part, this explains one of the puzzles surrounding this form of art crime: why thieves would want to purloin world-famous works of art that are essentially unsellable because they would be recognised at once if they were ever offered for sale in the future.
While some criminals hope to ransom lost artworks back to the institutions from which they were stolen, this strategy rarely works, according to Dick Ellis, because paying out ransoms, as well as being illegal, only encourages further thefts. Institutions are more likely to offer rewards for information leading to the recovery of stolen artworks. A $5m reward, for instance, is on the table for anyone who can crack the Isabella Stewart Gardner case – though, 23 years on, this has yet to yield results.
“Recovery rates internationally are very small, but best for well-known works of art,” explains Noah Charney, the founder of ARCA, and a professor of art history specialising in art crime. “So smarter criminals would steal B- or C-level works of art rather than more famous ones.”
With ransom rarely an option, criminals find other uses for high-profile stolen paintings, which often accrue a new value on the black market – typically, according to Ellis, around three to 10% of a painting’s total estimated value as reported in the media. Once this value has been determined, a stolen painting can then be offered as collateral to help secure a loan to finance illicit endeavours. “In this way stolen art actually funds activities such as drugs or tobacco trafficking,” Ellis explains.
Moreover, he continues, “Art now provides an alternative mechanism to transporting cash” – offering a solution for criminals keen to circumvent money-laundering regulations. “Stolen art can easily be carried across international borders and is used as a kind of banker’s draft to pay for things like drugs consignments. It has an international value without the hassle of currency conversion and may even be accepted as a trophy payment by senior cartel members.”