Article: The Reality of Art Crime

The Art Loss Register’s Will Korner discusses common perceptions and the reality of art theft and dispute in the March 2016 newsletter for J. Safra Sarasin Brokerage Limited.

The article on Famous Art and Jewellery Heists in July’s J. Safra Sarasin Brokerage’s newsletter compiled some of the most famous thefts on the subject. There is a certain familiarity for all of us – whether due to Hollywood or the worldwide press – that ‘art and jewellery heists bring to mind a certain glamour…’ and that ‘cases do not happen very often but when they do, they are monumental’. But how does this compare to reality?

The reality of art crime

Art crime is not, and never has been, restricted to paintings or jewellery. Its variety is encapsulated in the Art Loss Register database, which over the past 25 years has registered half a million items as lost, stolen, subject to a dispute, or with reported authenticity issues. These objects range from sculpture, drawings, furniture and clocks, to antiquities, coins, stamps and vintage cars, with much in between. In fact, there is now such a demand for the registration of stolen watches (so that buyers and sellers may check before a transaction) that it now has its own dedicated database and service: The Watch Register.

The value of stolen art is also not reserved to Rembrandts, Vermeers and Picassos. As many would appreciate, the financial worth of an object is inconsequential alongside a personal connection – whether it is something that has been admired in a museum, an object passed down through generations through a family, or a special present.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that there is sufficient financial incentive in art theft to make it an everyday crime. Allied with this motivation are the lack of regulation within the art market and the limited resources of law enforcement internationally. Unlike certain famous thefts, most purveyors of this crime are opportunistic. A Picasso plate taken from an art fair in the United States this time last year was a good example of this – the thief did not realise that the one hanging below was worth five times that which he carried off (they both had the same limited security and were the same size).

Even if the actual theft is planned, a criminal will also rarely consider what to do with the object afterwards. Many items stolen in such a way will be abandoned, or destroyed through fear that will be detected during subsequent trading. This may sadly be the fate for many of the most famous stolen artworks, perhaps including Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence and since claimed to have been burned or neglected in a basement by the mafia.

One of Caravaggio’s masterpieces, Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence, stolen from a church in Sicily in 1969 and still missing.

However, the majority of stolen valuables are later sold or traded for a tiny percentage of its financial value, often involved in drug transactions or money laundering – a diamond ring reported to the Art Loss Register at the time of writing this article had been stolen by a babysitter to fund his heroin addiction.

The reality of art theft is therefore that it is a ‘dirty’ crime. The recent recovery of a Pembroke card table shed light on the Johnsons, an Irish gang who had burgled some 20 major houses across the UK and stolen over £50 million of art and antiques, but who were involved in many other major and violent crimes. Cases such as these are very much at odds with Hollywood and frequent depictions in the press of gentleman thieves and collectors.


Pembroke mahogany card table recovered by the Art Loss Register, and sold on behalf of the insurer in 2014.

How to protect yourself

There are two issues of which any collector should be aware and look to protect themselves: the maintenance and protection of your collection, and becoming an inadvertent victim of the proceeds of art crime.

It may seem obvious, but the sad reality of these thefts is that in the past many owners did not thoroughly record their valuables. Documentation by owners, insurers, valuers and others is certainly increasing, but all collectors should strive to record their valuables so that they would be considered ‘uniquely identifiable’ if lost. Alongside standard information (title, artist/maker, medium, dimensions etc.), owners should take photographs and consider any marks or damage that make the object distinctive.

Of course, alongside recording your collection is the need to keep it secure. While statistics on this subject are notoriously difficult, certainly the majority of thefts take place from private residences and storage. Objects in transit are also often susceptible – in 2010, the Art Loss Register recovered three rare coins ‘lost’ through FedEx, while in the past few days two Andy Warhol prints and an Otto Piene worth a combined $100,000 were stolen in Germany after being left in a car by a dealer overnight.

A British Colonial Proof Trade Dollar Coin (1902), one of three gold coins recovered by the Art Loss Register in 2010

One final option to protect yourself would be to register those items in your permanent collection on the Art Loss Register’s ‘positive’ database. This would mean that a record would be kept of objects in storage and the Art Loss Register would inform the registrant should any appear on the market, which has occurred on several occasions.

Due diligence within the market

Over the past few years, the concept of ‘due diligence’ has become increasingly widespread within the art market, although this has admittedly lagged behind its prevalence in other sectors. The scale of art theft means many stolen items will eventually resurface on the market and with owners who are unaware of their problematic history and will not acquire good title.

While we must accept that it would be impossible to eradicate art crime altogether, the reduction of its financial incentive is achievable by ensuring that stolen items cannot be bought or sold without further investigation. The due diligence of those within the trade, collectors and other stakeholders has led to the identification and return of many stolen items.

As part of this due diligence, the Art Loss Register carries out 400,000 searches of items each year on behalf of auction houses, art fairs, dealers, museums, insurers, lenders and collectors. Since the number of searches and clients increases every year (there are now more than 90 subscribing auction houses), items have been identified at earlier points in time following theft. This minimises the period that they are on the market, and is crucial to returning the objects to their rightful owner within statutes of limitations, and identifying the original perpetrator(s) of the theft so that they can be prosecuted. Alongside recovering items with a total in the hundreds of millions of pounds, this process has more importantly restored objects with great personal value to their rightful owners or insurers, whether after some months or many years.

In conducting an increasing amount of due diligence, buyers and sellers are advised to always ask for the provenance of an item and be prepared to investigate it. It is also important to always know the person with whom you are trading. Simple questions like “where and when did you buy it” alleviate or arouse any suspicions, and protect you from any proceeds of art crime. Perhaps then it will remain a matter of glamorous fiction…

If you have any questions regarding this article, or would like more information on the Art Loss Register’s services, please get in touch.