July 23, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009 - ,, No comments

ARCA Postgraduate Program in The New York Times

ARCA is pleased to draw your attention to an excellent feature article in The New York Times (Wednesday, 22 July 2009) on ARCA's Postgraduate Program in the Study of Art Crime and Cultural Property Protection.

We at ARCA would like to clarify a few points raised by the article.

Among the speakers at the ARCA Conference this July 11 was a judge from New Zealand named Arthur Tompkins (not Ngarino Ellis, as listed in the article).

We wish to emphasize that ARCA is a non-profit, and the tuition for the Program goes exclusively to covering expenses. The tuition is on the low end for a similar European master-level programs, and the short, intensive nature of the program means that the total expenditure for all students is a fraction of the cost incurred by 9 or 12-month long postgraduate programs, when one calculates the living expenses for the year and the income lost by professionals who would need to take a year off of work. ARCA's ultimate goal is to run the Program, like its other activities, free of charge--but this target can only be reached if ARCA receives financial support through philanthropy and grants in the future. Further the Director of ARCA receives no monetary compensation for his work as Director.

Finally, the journalist inadvertently raised an excellent point about the lack of solid, comprehensive empirical data and statistics about art crime worldwide, when she mentioned that Interpol could not corroborate the statistics about art crime mentioned by various scholars at the ARCA Conference and discussed in ARCA's book, Art & Crime.

One of the greatest issues in art crime today is the lack of sufficient empirical data to back up experiential and anecdotal information provided by professionals in the field of art protection, the art trade, and policing. This is a point that we stress repeatedly in our book, Art & Crime, and in interviews with and lectures by ARCA staff. Based on discussions with prominent members of international police squads (including the Carabinieri, FBI, the Dutch Politie, the Slovene Policia, the Spanish Policia, Scotland Yard, and many more), art criminals, members of the art trade, museum security directors, archaeologists, art lawyers, and more, scholars such as those associated with ARCA have developed an understanding of the extent and impact of art crime that preceeds the availability of sufficiently extensive data to prove the widely-agreed upon speculation. Prominent informed sources have regularly listed illict art and antiquities as the third highest-grossing criminal trade (as in tradeable commodity) worldwide over the past forty years, behind only drugs and arms. This is a fair indication of the severity of art crime, and the involvement in art crime of organized crime groups, and the use of illicit art and antiquities to fund terrorist activities, are widely known. However the statistics have never been complete enough to draw the serious attention of most of the world's governments.

One problem has been the lack of data kept by police around the world. Most police are told to file stolen art along with general stolen property. This means that many art crimes go unreported by the police, as the theft of a Rembrandt is not filed in a manner distinct from the theft of a Buick or a DVD player. As a result, art crimes reported to the police are often lost, misfiled, and never reported to larger national police agencies, and therefore never reported to Interpol. But this issue is made more difficult by the fact that many art crimes go unreported by the victims. Museums and galleries may be loath to admit their own security failures, while private collectors may not have declared ownership of some objects in their collection, in order to avoid luxury tax. The result is that only a fraction of art crimes are reported and, as mentioned, those that are reported are likely as not to be filed in a way that makes it difficult to sort out art crime from general property theft. The looting of antiquities is another difficult component. Antiquities tend to be looted from remote sites, jungle tombs or coastal shipwrecks, that may go undiscovered for months or years, if someone comes across them at all. Even if an illegal excavation site is discovered, there will be no record of what was at the site to begin with, if the site was never before excavated. Therefore police may learn that a tomb has been opened, but have no idea what to look for, because the contents are known only to the thieves.

Police are too often unaware of the severity and nature of art crime for the very reason that good analyses of art crime are rare, due to the poor data available, which is itself caused by inadequate filing systems. The problem then becomes cyclical: with so little data available, professionals continue dismissing art crime as a trifling, and occasional misdemeanour, making good news stories and thrillers, involving the collectibles of the wealthy, whose affluence protects them from real misfortune. One of the goals of ARCA is to take a step outside of that cycle, by informing police and the art world about art crime, explaining how it functions, and why it is necessary to take it seriously.

This briefly illustrates the uphill hike that the united front of academics and art, police, and security professionals face in order to establish and develop this new field of the interdisciplinary and practical study of art crime. For more information and extensive discussions of this, please see Art & Crime (Praeger 2009).