July 1, 2009

Unreported Art Crimes

In the most recent US News & World Report Ulrich Boser has written an article on the FBI Crime Team. While researching for this piece Boser referred to ARCA's Art Crime Facts page, and asked me why so many art crimes go unreported. In my response I discussed how objects from unknown archaeological sites have not yet been registered, studied, or cataloged prior to the theft and thus are left unnoticed. Museums may be reluctant to report art thefts because it highlights shortcomings in their security. An institution's and its leadership's respect and reputation are at stake as well.

Additionally, in my discussion I described how museums and cultural institutions are often wary of reporting thefts as it can discourage other institutions and individuals from loaning works of art for special exhibitions - the cash cow for many institutions. To confirm my suspicions that special exhibitions are a source of considerable income I examined the 2006-2007 financial reports of several high-profile art museums. For example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art reported an income of $1,839,449 from special exhibitions. This amounted to a shade over 29% of the museum's program service revenue ($6,281,637 - program service revenue is revenue from admissions, special exhibition ticket sales, concession sales etc., BUT not membership dues or government grants - usually the largest portions of an institution's total revenue). Another institution, the Wadsworth Atheneum reported that in 2007 its income from special exhibitions was more than double its income from regular admissions ($842,218 versus $401,527 respectively). Although special exhibitions can be great sources of income for museums, they are also instrumental in sustaining and attracting donors and grants.

While scrutinizing a number of institutions' balance sheets I found some other things of note regarding special exhibitions and an institution's spending. The Wadsworth Atheneum whose net assets total just a little over a tenth of that of the Art Institute of Chicago nevertheless tallies more in special exhibition expenses than the Art Institute ($1,066,435 versus 1,061,113 respectively). Evidently, the Wadsworth views special exhibitions as great opportunities for growth.

Finally, it would appear that loan fees are not sources for much income for art museums. Of the institutions I researched only the Art Institute of Chicago listed how much loaned art brought into the museum ($166,140). Accordingly, it is clear that any fear for the security and safety of an institution's work of art certainly outweighs the potential (albeit minimal) monetary gains and could therefore dissuade them from loaning it to institutions that are considered to be at risk or prone to art theft.

*Original Post at Art Theft Central