A Brief History of Art Theft

By Knelman, Joshua | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

A Brief History of Art Theft


Knelman, Joshua, Queen's Quarterly


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Brief History of Art Theft
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.