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Johannes Vermeer’s “The Concert” (c. 1664) remains missing after being stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. It’s thought to be the most valuable unrecovered stolen painting in the world. (image via Wikipedia)

Art theft is the third-highest grossing criminal trade in the world over the past 40 years, preceded only by drugs and weapons. This claim comes from a smart, extensive Newsweek article covering a three-day conference held at New York University Law School last month called “Art Crime and Cultural Heritage: Fakes, Forgeries, and Looted and Stolen Art.” The conference featured an array of attendees — art investigators, dealers, writers, descendants of World War II–era Jewish art dealers seeking restitution — discussing the array of issues encompassed by the broad term “art crime.”

It sounds fairly revelatory for those not familiar with the details and sweeping nature of art theft, and the author of the Newsweek piece, Kris Hollington, captures some of the more shocking and juicy tidbits. He notes, for instance, that art crime is thought to generate $6–8 billion in rogue income annually (which, it’s worth noting, is a pittance compared to legal private sales of art — $25–30 billion, according to a 2008 ARTnews survey), and some 50,000–100,000 artworks are believed to be stolen each year. Only 10% of stolen art is recovered.

Also in the article (and at the conference), Milton Esterow, former owner of ARTnews, points out how common it is for museums and cities to mysteriously find hundreds of works missing from their collections. Dealer Richard Feigen demonstrates how easy it is for people to turn a blind eye and sell stolen work:

“Nothing’s all that effective right now,” Feigen says. “I saw a painting with poor war provenance vetted out of the Maastricht art fair, so the dealer sold it privately for a fortune. There’s a lack of communication across the industry.”

Géza von Habsburg, the Archduke Géza of Austria, Prince Imperial of Austria, Prince Royal of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia, also the world’s foremost expert on Fabergé, states, “Ninety-nine percent of what is sent to me to authenticate are forgeries.”

What’s more, regarding Nazi-looted art and the ongoing Cornelius Gurlitt saga, Hollington sheds this light on history:

Interviewed by the Monuments Men at war’s end, Cornelius Gurlitt convinced them that he’d handed over all he had. The truth was rather different. After the war, he joined other former Nazi-collaborating art historians, dealers and museum heads in Munich, where they conspired to create a market, using a Swiss-Liechtenstein network, for their looted artworks, which is still operating today.

If the amount of money legally being spent on art doesn’t seem justification enough for some kind of regulation of the trade, maybe the problems of looting and theft and criminal sales will. The whole piece is worth reading in full over at Newsweek.

Correction: This article previously stated that art theft is the third-highest grossing criminal trade in the world without noting that the ranking is based on the past 40 years. It has fixed.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...