A Brief History of Art Theft
Knelman, Joshua, Queen's Quarterly
For centuries, the art market has operated on a sense of trust, and a business-on-a-handshake model. This was never ideal, and now, more and more criminals are exploiting one of the last unregulated multi-million dollar industries. Art theft has evolved into an efficient international black market, and those spectacular Hollywood-worthy thefts from major museums, glamorized in films, can be a diversion from the larger story--a chance to celebrate a seductive myth rather than explore the reality of the crime.
ONE of the earliest recorded trials of a thief in human history took place in Egypt, during the era of Ramesses IX, who reigned somewhere between 1129-1111 BCE. The details of that trial were captured on papyrus, an ancient form of paper, and told of the criminal conviction of men who pillaged a royal tomb--most likely stealing bronze and silver materials. One of those men was sentenced to death on a stake.
Looting was considered a heinous crime. The pyramids, tombs, and temples, and the material treasures they stored, were part of an elaborate machine with one purpose: to safely carry pharaohs into the afterlife, where they would live in comfort forever. The early thefts in Egypt were probably the first cases of "inside jobs"--heists carried out by organized teams who knew how to get in, what treasures were there, and who was guarding them. After all, as US cultural heritage lawyer Rick St. Hilaire told me, "The Pyramids were a beacon to thieves. They shouted, 'Look over here! The loot is inside us!'"
Egypt, St. Hilaire told me when we visited Cairo, was a great place to start with the history of art theft. Local tomb raiders were just one form of thief, and over the centuries Egypt was looted by a parade of invaders, including Libyans, Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, and Macedonians--Alexander the Great, who wanted to be a pharaoh. Later, the Romans stole so many Egyptian obelisks that if you want to see an array of obelisks today, you're better off travelling to Rome, not Cairo. And when Napoleon invaded Egypt, he brought scientists to help catalogue his loot, much of which was transported to the Louvre. After Napoleon was defeated by Lord Nelson the loot was redirected to the new collection of antiquities at the British Museum. Both institutions now house two of the most impressive collections of Egyptian cultural artifacts in the world, outside of Egypt.
OVER the centuries, antiquities theft evolved into art theft. Today, museums, art galleries, art dealers, and private residences have become targets for a global industry exploited by a new generation of more sophisticated thieves. In the twenty-first century, art theft has been transformed into a multi-billion dollar shadow business that has spread across the earth, and no one has a firm grasp on the size or efficiency of the illegal network. Stats for the black market range from $1 billion to $6 billion annually, but there are no reliable figures to pinpoint how large it is. Karl-Heinz Kind, the coordinator of Interpol's Art Works Unit, told me: "It is a big problem. It affects all countries, and all the regions of the world." Even so, in the English-language world, there are only a handful of detectives or agents with the skills to investigate art theft cases with confidence, and they admit to often being two or three steps behind thieves--and overwhelmed with cases.
It has become almost routine to open a newspaper and read an article about a blockbuster theft from a famous museum. In May 2010, for example, rive paintings worth over $100 million were stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art. These included works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and Amedeo Modigliani. This was considered a quiet theft--there were no guns involved. Violent thefts have become just as routine: armed men storm galleries during visiting hours, pull works of genius off the wall, and rush away in a car--or, as was the case at the National Museum in Sweden, a getaway boat. …