Art Theft Online

Article excerpt

IN A STRUGGLING world economy, top dollar art sales may be going down, but international art thefts are on the rise. Such a trend will certainly worry museum directors and church sacristans, especially in Latin America where valuables are often left unguarded in exhibition rooms and high altars.

One recent example was the pilfering of US$56 million worth of paintings by Picasso and Brazilian artist Candido Portinari from Sao Paulo's art museum. Police first thought that the theft was masterminded by international criminals, but it turned out to be a local job.

An even more curious robbery, that of a Goya engraving from his celebrated "Disasters of War" series, occurred in Bogota in September 2008. A ransom letter, later revealed to have been written by a prankster, said that the artwork had been stolen in protest of the museum's exorbitant entry fees. The engraving was later recovered, but the fake letter led local investigators on a wild goose chase, which inadvertently gave the real thieves more time for their getaway.

Luckily, the internet is providing better ways to report and recover stolen art objects from far and wide.

The international police consortium Interpol has long been a clearinghouse for this type of information. Its website maintains lists of stolen pieces, recovered pieces with identified owners, and unclaimed recovered pieces with unidentified owners. This last category of 181 "orphan" objects includes pieces from two major cases: a group of pre-Columbian Peruvian ceramics recovered in Germany, and a collection of colonial-era religious sculptures and paintings recovered in Ecuador.

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Interpol's list of unrecovered items, complete with photos, descriptions, and the countries where the theft occurred, currently contains 425 objects. Latin American countries are heavily represented. For example, Theft #2 is a portrait painting on wood stolen from Peru, titled "A Franciscan." Theft #423 is an eighteenth century painting on cotton titled "Woman and Miracle of Saint Anthony," stolen from Mexico. The 225 pieces that have been recently recovered and returned to their owners include a seventeenth century atlas of the New World, the Americae Nova Tabula, stolen from Finland and recovered in England in 2001, and an eighteenth century portrait of Saint Gregory stolen in Peru and recovered there in 2006. …