Art Crime Special article
Picasso. De Goya. Rembrandt… The works of these artists and countless others have fallen prey to crime. By vandalism, theft or other ways, the art world is not exempt from the world of crime.
According to Teressa Davis, managing director of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), there are many different types of art crime which includes looting archeological sites, smuggling antiquities and theft from public and private collections.
“There is no one type of art crime, just as there is no one type of criminal. These crimes are committed by different individuals, acting from different motivations, under different circumstances,” she said. “Some art crimes have financial motives, such as the theft and ransom of famous paintings. Others have political motives, such as the destruction of historic Warsaw by the Nazis during World War II.”
ARCA, according to Davis, is “a nongovernmental and not-for-profit think tank on art crime. Based in Italy, but with an international scope, we use interdisciplinary methods to study art crime throughout history and across national borders.”
“We also promote knowledge and scholarship in the field and consult governments, law enforcement agencies, museums, places of worship, and other public institutions on art protection and recovery cases,” she added.
Davis said ARCA sponsors the world’s first and only Master’s program in Art Crime Studies, publishes The Journal of Art Crime, and hosts an annual conference on art crime, in order to promote knowledge and scholarship.
“The most common art theft will be committed during the burglary of a private property during which items get taken which is salable and portable,” according to Maja Pertot Bernard of The Art Loss Register. “Jewelry is particularly vulnerable because it is portable, can be extremely valuable, can be dismounted and taken apart. We think that works of art and jewelry are only worth about 10 percent of their original value after theft.”
The Art Loss Register is an international registry of stolen, missing and disputed works of art, including fakes and forgeries.
“We are performing systematic catalogue and ad hoc searching and provide extensive provenance research, particularly to close gaps in the provenance of works of art,” said Pertot Bernard. “We will provide our clients with certificates, to show that they have performed a certain level of due diligence, although we always stress that other documentation for example export licenses and proof of purchase need to be in order too.”
“In active cases we do not only help to successfully recover items but also assume an advisory role as well as negotiate between parties,” she added. “We provide mediation in art disputes a field that is ever expanding and more and more in demand.”
Financial gain is one of the main reasons behind art crime.
“Interpol states that the theft of fine art is currently the fourth largest crime world-wide after drugs, money laundering and illegal arms sales,” said Pertot Bernard. “With an annual estimated turnover of $6 billion a year, these proceeds are often used to fund other criminal activities.”
Pertot Bernard added that the objects serve as a medium of exchange between criminals and a way to launder money.
Davis said there are misconceptions in what people think regarding art crime.
“There is a public misconception that art crime is an innocent and nonviolent crime perpetrated by gentleman, an illusion that has been perpetuated by such films as The Thomas Crown Affair,” she said. “But those working in the field know that for at least the last 50 years most art crime has involved organized crime.”
She said art crime funds other criminal enterprises ranging from drug and arms trade to terrorism.
“Individuals rarely have the resources to commit the major art crimes,” she said. “Even if a single criminal could steal an important painting from a private collection or museum, how would he successfully ransom it? Or smuggle it out of the country? Or find and secure a buyer on the black market? How could he do any of these things acting alone? He could not – without involving organized crime.”
Davis said that because art crime is not taken seriously the recovery rates for art are low, in part because the reporting rate is low.
“The fault is not the police but rather the overall administration – with the notable exception of Italy, most countries do not take art crime seriously, and do not assign enough resources to it,” she said. “They do not take art crime seriously because studies have not been done to demonstrate the scale and depth of art crime, specifically its extensive links to organized crime and terrorism.”
It isn’t just pictures for which detectives on the Art Theft Detail of the Los Angeles Police Department have had to search.
“We don’t deal with only traditional art,” said Detective Don Hrycyk. “We’ve handled fossils, a $ 3.5 million Stradivarius cello, rare books to samurai swords.”
Hrycyk has been a member of the Art Theft Detail for over 15 years. Since 1993, the Art Theft Detail has recovered art with a total worth of $77,563,992. The Detail is currently the only full-time municipal law enforcement unit devoted to the investigation of art crimes in the U.S.
Currently in Los Angeles there are several Andy Warhol paintings missing, as well as a Hollywood prop for the movie Ghostbusters.
“L.A. is sort of a center for Warhol art since he was here,” said Hrycyk. “That’s the same with other types of collectibles, like Hollywood props since LA is the center for that activity.”
“Right now we are looking for comic book valued at $195,000,” added Hrycyk.
Hrycyk said the department deals with theft and burglaries, consignment fraud, investment and insurance scams, among others.
“Fake art is one that is a greater threat than that of stolen art,” he said. “We run into fraudulent art all the time. It has saturated the environment.”
When looking for stolen art, Hrycyk said he had to learn the terminology and what makes things so valuable.
“When you enter that person’s world, see through their eyes how they are viewing these things,” he said.
Art has changed for Hrycyk over the years of working on the Art Theft Detail.
“When I first started, the art work didn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “Now I walk into a gallery or museum and find I’m familiar with the pieces.”
Hrycyk said he has learned to recognize a particular artist’s work, and has even worked with the artists themselves.
“I’m oftentimes dealing with galleries, collectors and actual artists,” he said. “They are able to show what they were thinking about at the time and provide a description of the process.”
Noah Charney, founding director of ARCA, spoke about the most frequently stolen artwork, the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck.
“It was involved in 13 crimes over its 600-year lifespan, including seven separate thefts, culminating in its theft to be the centerpiece of Hitler’s planned Supermuseum during the Second World War,” he said. “It was an incredible, unlikely rescue, thanks to a team of Monuments Men, a fortuitous toothache, and the courage of an Austrian double-agent. Sounds like a film preview, but it’s all true.”
“Anything bad that can happen to an artwork has happened to that one monumental painting, arguably the most important painting ever made,” he added.
When asked if there were notorious art criminals, Charney explained that within certain areas of crime there are profiles of such criminals that would provide a notorious name. For instance, forgers have a few names that come up in the ranks of notorious forgers.
“Shaun Greenhalgh is the most recent famous forger to have been arrested, but John Myatt, Elmyr de Hory, Eric Hebborn, Hans van Meegeren are all prominent,” said Charney.
Both Pertot Bernard and Charney named Stephan Breitweiser as probably the most notorious fine art thief, who had an unhealthy obsession with art combined with the affliction of kleptomania.
“He’s a Swiss waiter who loved art and stole for his personal admiration, stealing hundreds of works from major museums,” Charney said. “When he was arrested his mother tried to protect him by destroying some of the stolen art. Breitweiser was so upset that he tried to kill himself in prison, because he loved the art so much.”
The size of stolen art may range from a tiny stone to two tons, as was the case with the Henry Moore sculpture theft.
According to Museum of the Missing, by Simon Houpt, the 11-foot-long, two-ton sculpture was taken in 2005 from the grounds of the late artist. The sculpture was worth $5.2 million.
While art is not exempt from crime, there are many people who are searching to replace art with its rightful owners and who seek to understand why people commit such crimes.