To Steal or Not to Steal?

Article excerpt

Byline: Nick Summers

On March 18, 1990, two thieves stole $500 million in art from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum--including works by Degas, Manet, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. None have been seen since (their frames hang empty). Art theft may sound glamorous, but such high-class crimes rarely pay.

Pennies On the Dollar

Although art theft is a $6 billion global enterprise, most pieces sell for 10 percent of their value--tops. In 2006 a Connecticut handyman who'd nicked a $1 million Fantin-Latour unloaded it at an antiques shop for $100.

Going, Going--cGone

Perhaps 25 percent of pilfered art is never recovered, according to the Art Loss Register, an international database. Panicky thieves burn the evidence; works are stashed away and forgotten--or, in the case of precious gems and metals, broken down into their component parts.

Too Hot to Handle

While lesser master-pieces can easily reenter the legitimate market, truly priceless art is virtually impossible to fence. "The major, immediately recognizable works--everybody knows they're stolen. Those disappear for a very long time," says the FBI's Bonnie Magness-Gardiner.

Stealth Collectors

The idea of a rich villain who commissions robberies and hoards masterpieces--a la the James Bond nemesis Dr. No--is "a figment of journalists' imagination," says the Art Loss Register's Julian Radcliffe.

Waiting Game

A small fraction of works resurface after a collector dies and heirs liqui-date the estate. …