Art Theft, Smuggling Big Business in Europe

Article excerpt

MADRID - While violent arms and drug traffickers regularly make the headlines, a less lethal but sometimes more lucrative criminal traffic is quietly flourishing in antiques shops and auction houses.

Trade in stolen and falsified art is one of Europe's biggest crime businesses, with turnover equivalent to $6 billion annually in the European Union, Spanish police say.

Last week, Spanish police announced they had busted a gang specializing in stolen and falsified art, seizing 22 works that possibly include authentic paintings by modern painters Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro and Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli.

The works were confiscated from residences in Pamplona, Spain. Four persons were charged with theft. The ring is believed to have smuggled art to Spain from Latin America.

The painting attributed to Picasso, which appears to have been completed in 1921 and bears a resemblance to "The Dog and The Rooster" at the art gallery of Yale University, could well be authentic and worth millions of dollars, police said.

A painting called "The Three Graces" attributed to Botticelli , as well as four lithographs attributed to Miro, also showed signs of being authentic. Tests would be made, police said.

About 60,000 artworks are stolen worldwide every year, but only 10 percent to 15 percent are recovered.

In Spain alone, about 200 artworks are stolen every year from homes, churches, castles, museums, exhibitions and archaeological sites.

Even more thefts take place in Italy and France. The art - from paintings and sculptures to crucifixes and baptismal fonts - soon find its way to Britain, Japan and other major markets.

In the recent years, works by Paul Gauguin, Miro, Titian, Raphael, Anthony Van Dyck and Gustav Klimt have been included on "The Most Wanted Works of Art" - a list of stolen items circulated by Interpol.

Interpol is constantly hunting for thousands of artworks. Spanish police, for instance, are still baffled by how two paintings by 17th-century Spanish master Diego Rodriguez Velazquez vanished from Madrid's Royal Palace in 1989. …