Art Crime: An Introduction To The Multi-Billion Dollar Global Enterprise

June 16, 2021

By Deepti Govind

“The true art in art theft is not in the stealing, it’s in the selling,” Robert Wittman, who led the FBI’s Art Crime Team, told NBC News after the discovery of two stolen paintings by Dutch master Vincent van Gogh in Italy in 2016. To most of us, art heists feel exciting and glamorous. Bizarrely so, when you think about it, because it is very much a crime, and like any crime, there’s always the possibility that it could turn violent.

But many of us imagine dapper, intelligent art thieves — often drawn from fictitious movie or TV series characters — managing to evade state-of-art security systems, conning anyone they encounter during the course of the crime, and making off with priceless works of art, with barely a crease on their suits or a bead of sweat on their brows. Wittman bursts that bubble in his interview with NBC with a single example: The two Van Goghs we mentioned earlier were stolen by regular ol’ thieves… who used a ladder to get inside the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002 to pull off their heist. They were not top notch professionals. They were just like any other thieves who targeted something priceless and decided to steal it.

Still, art crime is a massive global enterprise and includes theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking. Art thefts alone account for billions of dollars in losses worldwide every year. It is one of the biggest types of crimes committed globally along with drugs and weapons trafficking, and money laundering, said Christopher A. Marinello, who recovers stolen, looted, and missing works of art, to NPR in an interview two weeks ago. And the Covid-19 pandemic did nothing to stop art thieves. On the contrary, with 95% of museums being temporarily shut, security became a challenge for those who had to continue to protect their collections from criminals. For example, a painting by Van Gogh was stolen in an overnight smash-and-grab raid on a shuttered museum east of Amsterdam in March. However, art heists do not necessarily take place at museums and galleries — a significant number take place at the homes of private collectors.

On May 11, INTERPOL said that despite Covid-19 constraints, its 2020 edition of the Pandora operation, which targets the illicit trafficking of cultural goods, has been its most successful one until date. Over 56,400 cultural goods were seized, including archaeological objects, furniture, coins, paintings, musical instruments, and sculptures. More than 300 investigations were opened and 67 individuals arrested. That’s nearly triple the amount of stolen goods seized in 2019. In 2018, it recovered over 18,000 objects and arrested 59 people. Worryingly, among the goods seized in 2020 were several hundred World War II grenades and other explosive devices that are still functional! But that’s a story for another day.

Typically, it’s when thieves need to sell art that they are more likely to be caught by law enforcement. If a thief steals a world famous painting, for instance, they may probably be stuck with it for good because it’s too famous to fence. Wittman says people who commit such crimes are better thieves than businessmen. Marinello, who like Wittman terms the people he deals with common thieves, said to NPR: “The idea that there’s some sort of Dr. No collecting artwork in some underwater layer is just complete fantasy. These guys want cash.”

Even so, there’s no denying that art crime and glamor have become somewhat inextricably linked in public perception, thanks in no small part to Hollywood. Sometimes, though, that perception can be used for good. For instance, the director of the Netflix docuseries “This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist” says his show is like the world’s biggest wanted poster for the Boston Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft in 1990. That heist is definitely also a story for another day! In 2018, the Boston Globe and WBUR’s investigative podcast “Last Seen” debuted and helped publicize the theft, the Smithsonian magazine says in an article. The hope is that someone watching the series somewhere may have new information for law enforcement about the missing piece’s whereabouts.

Anthony Amore, who has been the Director of Security and the Chief Investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum since 2005, says art thievery is a “short-sighted crime.” Even so, thieves persist and it is a growing criminal enterprise, as the FBI says, for various reasons. As with the Boston museum heist, many art thieves who go after world renowned paintings may simply be pulling off a crime of opportunity and not really have an established network to “get rid” of the art. There could also be the glamor, some say, associated with stealing something that you know there is only one of in the world.

How do some of the top LEO agencies deal with this “glamorous” crime? Read on for a brief overview of the FBI’s strategy.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team

Although the FBI and other agencies have always investigated art crimes, the Bureau officially established its Art Crime Team in 2004. The reason behind that was a rather serious event: The looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad after the country was invaded. “In March/April 2003, Iraqi cultural institutions and archaeological sites suffered major losses of priceless historical artifacts. Looting from archaeological sites continues on a massive scale,” the FBI says. While a number of stolen artifacts have been returned to the museum since, between 7,000-10,000 remain missing. It’s easy to buy ancient Mesopotamian objects online, but at least some of the post-2003 internet wealth of Mesopotamian treasures is actually stolen goods, The Atlantic said in a 2018 article.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team created in response to the Baghdad museum looting is typically made up of 20 special agents, each responsible for addressing art and cultural property crime cases in an assigned geographic region. It is coordinated through the FBI’s Art Theft Program, located at their headquarters in Washington, D.C. Art Crime Team agents receive specialized training in art and cultural property investigations and assist in art-related investigations worldwide in cooperation with foreign law enforcement officials and FBI legal attaché offices. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) provides special trial attorneys to the Art Crime Team for prosecutorial support. Since its inception, the Art Crime Team has recovered more than 15,000 items valued at over $800 million. 

The Bureau also runs the National Stolen Art File (NSAF), a database of stolen art and cultural property for the use of law enforcement agencies across the world. Stolen objects are submitted for entry to the NSAF by law enforcement agencies globally. When an object is recovered, it is removed from the database. However, not all recoveries are reported to the NSAF. Sometimes, the FBI even offers a reward for information regarding stolen cultural property.

How does the FBI investigate such crimes? As with other criminal cases, if there’s a heist at a museum involving a multi-million dollar painting, for instance, the FBI would go down to the crime scene, collect evidence, interview witnesses, etc. While nearly all the steps it would follow are similar to other criminal cases, what makes art crimes a little different is that the primary focus is to recover the priceless stolen good(s). “In some instances, we might be recovering an original Modigliani or an original da Vinci piece or a Rodin or whatever it might be. I know a lot of my law enforcement colleagues cringe when I say this, but for us, in the art theft program, arresting the bad guys is really secondary,” Special Agent Tim Carpenter said in an interview with The Verge last year.

The FBI also lists out what to do when an art theft has been discovered:

  • Protect the scene of the crime and do not let staff or visitors into the area to disturb evidence.
  • Notify your local police department immediately.
  • Determine the last time the objects were seen and what happened in the area, or to the objects, in that time.
  • Gather documents, descriptions, and images of the missing objects and provide it to the police.
  • Follow-up on police actions and investigations to ensure that everything possible is being done.

Meanwhile, INTERPOL in May launched a new app that aims to make the process of identifying and reporting stolen works as simple as swiping on a smartphone. After downloading the free app — called ID-Art — users can upload images or input keywords to search for information about specific missing objects, the Smithsonian said. INTERPOL also has its own database for such works of art — The Stolen Works of Art Database.

If you have information on a work of art in the NSAF, please use the FBI.gov tip line to report it. 

This is the first in a series of pieces Biometrica plans to do on the world of art crime.