Art Crime

By James, Marianne | Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Art Crime


James, Marianne, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice


When art and crime mix, a wide spectrum of illegal behaviours come onto the screen - forgery and fraud, theft and extortion, money laundering, and document and identity fraud. These are also important issues of threats to the integrity of cultural hen tage, as well as the import and export of antiquities and other items of cultural heritage.

International art theft has been estimated to be worth as much as US$6 billion per year (International Foundation for Art Research 1995). Aus traiia, with its small art market and geographical isolation, has its own unique dynamics, and art crime here is mainly concerned with forgery and theft of paintings. Forgery can have a significant impact on the art market. It instils a lack of confidence in investors and, when publicised, can depress the sale of the particular artist or school that is subject to the forgeries. When international markets lose confidence, this could be particularly disastrous for Aboriginal communities, as the art work is often the source of their economic livelihood.

The art industry, as part of the luxury goods industry, is also an attractive industry to money launderers. As it can be difficult to determine the value of a painting, illicit funds can be used to buy an item of considerable value and the true value unstated. There are challenges for law enforcement because of the specialised nature of the work and the particular knowledge of art required by police who work in this field. In December 1999, the Australian Institute of Criminology ran Australia's first conference on art crime. This paper explores all these issues surrounding art críme and its prevention.

Adam Graycar

Director

Art is one of the most profound expressions of our creativity and one of our most lasting legacies. Throughout history, art has been a reflection of the cultural, social and political aspects of all societies. In Australia, painters, in particular, have made a significant contribution to our cultural life. Artists, such as Glover, von Guerard and Martens, through the Heidelberg school to Nolan and Boyd, and more recently Whiteley and Williams, to name only a few, have put Australia on the world stage through the quality of their paintings. Art has, therefore, not only contributed to the cultural life of Australia, but to the commercial life as well. The art market, however, consists of a wide range of different kinds of art apart from paintings. This includes photographs, sculptures, works in glass, ceramics, antiquities and works on paper (that is, prints, drawings, and watercolours).

Art crime is not a new phenomenon. Stories of fakes, forgeries and stolen cultural treasures have been a part of the history of the world for centuries (Greenfield 1995). The improved accessibility of art and the acceptance of contemporary art as an investment have contributed to the upward trend in art crime over the last few decades when private ownership has become more prevalent. Reports of stolen art received by the International Foundation for Art Research more than tripled in the late 1970s. Combined with the quantity of anecdotal reports published in newspapers and law enforcement and art journals, it appears that criminals have also found art to be an increasingly useful avenue for profit making, by engaging in theft, forgery and money laundering (Aarons 1998).

Theft

International art theft has been estimated to be valued at between US$2 billion and US$6 billion per year (International Foundation for Art Research 1995). Estimates suggest that US$200 million worth of antiquities are smuggled out of Turkey yearly, primarily taken from burial sites and ancient cities (Doxey 1996). The government of the People's Republic of China estimates that 40,000 tombs were robbed in 1989 and 1990, and gangs managed to smuggle out huge statues 1000 years old or more (WuDunn 1992). Italy recorded 230,000 art thefts from 1970 to 1990, British losses were estimated at US$1.

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