Art heists are traditionally seen as the fictional preserve of movies like How To Steal A Million or Danny Boyle's Trance, but it turns out that they constitute a huge IRL criminal enterprise. In fact, according to a lengthy Newsweek investigation, art theft has been the third biggest criminal trade in the world for the past 40 years – behind, respectively, drugs and guns.
The FBI estimates that art crime generates an annual criminal income of $6 – $8 billion. Some 50,000 to 100,000 works of art are stolen every year, and only about 10% of stolen art is ever returned. In Britain alone, the total value of art and antiques nicked every year is around £300 million, which is second only to drug dealing.
One of the most startling findings in the Newsweek feature is just how commonly art goes missing from museums and galleries, and how dealers and buyers often turn a blind eye to stolen work.
"Nothing’s all that effective right now,” art dealer Richard 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.”
In fact, many of the stolen artworks circulating the criminal underworld today have a much more sinister history. During World War II, the Nazis looted the galleries and homes of Jewish collectors to confiscate art for Hitler's Führermuseum in Austria. When the war ended, Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi art dealer, joined roces with Nazi-allied art historians, dealers and museum heads to create an underground market for stolen art.
In 2010, Gurlitt was busted after customs officials found 1,280 artworks (including ones by Picasso and Chagall) in his Munich apartment – but the marketplace he created still thrives today. ARTNews editor Milton Esterow believes that the overheated art market might be to blame if dealers are tempted to sell a piece without checking its provenance.
"The art market is going insane," Esterow says. "Prices are berserk... Five years ago Forbes listed 900 billionaires in the world. This year it’s 1,346. Instead of buying houses, horses or a slew of girlfriends they are buying art."
With no licensing regulations and an endless supply of monied buyers, it looks like the art underworld is here to stay. You can read the Newsweek article in full here.
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing