$2 to $6 Billion Worldwide

All Things Considered featured an interesting story on art theft last week by Frank Browning. It gets to the heart of the intrigue behind art theft. Does it support terrorism, drugs or organized crime? Is there a modern Dr. No? Here’s part of the story:

May 31, 2007 · Art theft has turned into a global industry that experts believe now fuels everything from terrorism to drug-running. At least one art sleuth puts art crime, including stolen antiquities and traffic in forgeries, behind only drug and arms trafficking as the third-most lucrative criminal activity in the world, at $2 to $6 billion a year.

Late one night last winter, thieves broke into the Paris apartment of Pablo Picasso’s daughter and granddaughter. When the granddaughter went downstairs, she found two of the painter’s best-known works missing.

And several years ago, thieves made off with Edvard Munch’s globally famous “The Scream” from an Oslo museum; before that, thieves carted off a dozen masterpieces from a Boston museum.

There are almost as many theories about what happens to the booty from these capers as there are stolen art works.

The most romantic ideas posit an enigmatic “Dr. No” character who commissions thieves to snatch particular works to adorn a secret hideout on a remote island.

But most art sleuths think this is hogwash. Another intriguing theory has stolen art functioning almost as commodities – traded over and over again on the black market, at less than 10 percent of its auction value, for guns or drugs. This theory has almost all art theft perpetrated by organized crime syndicates.

Listen to the radio segment here. The comments by Dick Ellis, that the resources devoted to the problem by Scotland Yard are inadequate are right on point. I also think the notion that stolen art and antiquities are used as collateral is interesting, and quite plausible. Unfortunately there just isn’t a lot of good evidence to support the hypothesis.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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