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 (interpol.int) 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.
RE “A Master’s in Art Crime (No Cloak and Dagger)” July 21, 2009:
Derek Fincham, New Orleans Louisiana, July 24, 2009
Fellow at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, illicit-cultural-property.
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.