Estimating Art Crime (UPDATE)

In her piece on the ARCA MA program for the New York Times, Elisabetta Povoledo may have done a number of cultural heritage scholars a disservice — myself included — when she criticized Noah Charney’s estimation that art crime is the third largest. The piece states:

“Citing Interpol, Mr. Charney said art crime was the third-highest-grossing illegal worldwide business, after drugs and weapons. Interpol itself says on its Web site ( that it knows of no figures to make such a claim.”

However merely checking with Interpol did not give a full and accurate picture of the size of art crime, though Interpol is often used as the source. On the Interpol website, it states: “We do not possess any figures which would enable us to claim that trafficking in cultural property is the third or fourth most common form of trafficking, although this is frequently mentioned at international conferences and in the media.”

It is certainly true that Interpol no longer can estimate with any confidence even if it once did, that art crime is the third largest criminal enterprise. However the estimation has appeared in a number of sources, including this 2005 USA Today piece. It has been ranked as the 3rd largest, the fourth largest, and estimated between a few hundred million pounds up to billions of dollars annually by experts before the House of Commons Illicit Trade Advisory Panel.

I attempted to clear up some of this confusion with an Op-ed piece, though I was informed the paper does not publish Op-ed pieces which respond to pieces from the paper. I also submitted a letter to the editor, but received no response. I have decided instead to publish my response here. As I argued in the letter below and the longer op-ed, art crime is difficult to estimate but there is broad agreement that Charney and others are correct, that art crime is the third largest illegal trade. But we need more concrete statistics and education to highlight the problem. Povoledo’s comment about Interpol raises this issue, and I think we need better statistics and we won’t get them without increased awareness.

Here is the Letter to the Editor:

RE “A Master’s in Art Crime (No Cloak and Dagger)” July 21, 2009:

Gauging the loss we all suffer when antiquities are looted or art is stolen will always be difficult. In her piece on the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), Elisabetta Povoledo challenged the assertion made by Noah Charney that art crime is the third largest illegal trade after drugs and weapons. In doing so she highlighted one of the biggest obstacles law enforcement officers and researchers must navigate when they look at art crime. Though Interpol certainly has made no claim to that figure, the estimate has appeared in countless media outlets and works of scholarly research.
Newcomers to the art trade are often surprised to discover that basic information such as who buys art, how much they pay for it, and who has owned an object in the past is intentionally obscured from view by the market. Also, valuation of art itself is difficult. If we reflect on the generation that has been unable to see Vermeer’s The Concert, which was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, how large is that loss? If we were to collect all of the stolen works of art into one museum, that museum of art theft would easily eclipse the Met or the Louvre or any of the World’s great museums. 
If we value our collective cultural heritage, art crime is certainly at least the third-largest illegal trade; and we need solid empirical data to lend support to the anecdotal evidence. One of the difficulties is law enforcement agencies all over the world do not consistently track art crime. Italy reports the most art crimes because their Carabinieri pays careful attention. As a result of this problematic and sporadic reporting and filing, we don’t have good statistics, and need to rely on the experiential and anecdotal information of people in the field, like police, and the partial statistics available through institutions like Interpol. Though it is difficult to place a firm estimate, the broader public who enjoys and supports the arts should press for more education and awareness of the devastating consequences art crimes inflict upon our collective cultural heritage.

Derek Fincham, New Orleans Louisiana, July 24, 2009
Fellow at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law,


Mark Durney at Art Theft Central responds to this post by noting:

Another obstacle facing those who study art crime is the public’s fascination for the myth of the Dr. No, or the Thomas Crown, scenario. Certainly, clearing this hurdle also requires educating the public. In my experiences as a gallery officer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum I have heard from countless museum patrons who are convinced the Dutch Room’s missing paintings are “hanging on some millionaire’s wall.” Accordingly, raising awareness regarding how the illicit art trade operates is equally as important.

That is a great point I think; initially those kinds of stories help attract attention.  However they aren’t at all an accurate picture of art thieves and in the long run may help to explain why the penalties for art crime (broadly defined) are so meager, and why continued efforts, advocacy and education are so badly needed. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at

4 thoughts on “Estimating Art Crime (UPDATE)”

  1. I’m still at a loss for why you felt this op-ed was necessary. Elisabetta Povoledo is a tireless arts reporter and supporter for the NY Times. She’s one of the only writers who will draw attention to the art crime program, and I hardly think that she was challenging Noah Charney’s assertion that art crime is the third largest illegal trade. Instead, in her attempt to back up Charney’s claim, she could not find any hard data to support that statistic. Unless you can find data to support the statistic yourself, I do not think an op-ed is the appropriate outlet for your frustration.

    Arts coverage, particularly about the illicit trade in antiquities, is few and far between. Furthermore, Povoledo’s piece is positive press for the art crime program. You should be applauding her journalistic diligence to track down statistics.

  2. Thanks for the comment, but I guess I read the piece much differently than you did.

    At the end of the day, as I stressed in the letter I don’t think we can estimate with 100% certainty the size of the damage done by art crime; and at least part of the calculus is subjective. How much do you value the ability of a generation to visit a “complete” Gardner Museum in Boston? How many stolen cars does that equal?

    Though Charney may have been remiss in using Interpol as the source for the statistic; at one time it was at least reported by countless researchers and news outlets to have said art crime is the third largest criminal enterprise. I’ve argued the same in a couple of places.

    The ultimate point which Interpol and Charney and many others agree on is the need for law enforcement and policy makers to take this kind of crime seriously; and I thin that was the broader point Charney was attempting to make.

  3. I agree with that point, Derek. But I don’t think that Elisabetta was trying to disprove Charney by getting her facts right. She could have eliminated the comment entirely, in fact. But she didn’t, because she’s interested in getting these sorts of issues out on the table, and being a fair journalist in the process.

    I read your comment as a complaint directed at her, when I felt like your complaint should have been more of a plea to the general public and policymakers that the illicit trade in art in antiquities should not be taken lightly.

  4. Elizabeth may have been trying to get “these sort of issues out on the table.” But in doing so she, she brought scrutiny on herself. I don’t think anyone is attacking her and the op-ed is a needed step in discussing the same issues you assert she was trying to highlight. Since she didn’t expand and examine this line of thinking I for one am glad that Derek did.
    Rather than chiding someone for taking up where another left off in the conversation it would be more useful to all if the comments were kept to the subject at hand. No one cares if you’re friends or just a fan of Elizabeth.

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