Museum Security Network

It has been called the world’s biggest museum: an international black market in art the FBI estimates is worth about $6-billion a year. Interpol ranks art theft as the fourth largest criminal enterprise after drugs, money laundering and weapons. And recovery rates are abysmally low, about five to eight per cent.

Art theft ranked as fourth-largest criminal enterprise
SEPTEMBER 1, 2007
MONTREAL — It has been called the world’s biggest museum: an international black market in art the FBI estimates is worth about $6-billion a year. Interpol ranks art theft as the fourth largest criminal enterprise after drugs, money laundering and weapons. And recovery rates are abysmally low, about five to eight per cent.
Art theft has the cachet of romantic crime — popular culture frequently portrays the art thief as a playboy criminal with an art history degree and a burglar’s mask stuffed into the pocket of his Armani suit.
The modern museum robbery can be quite organized and spectacular, like the Museum of Fine Arts heist in Montreal in 1972, in which 18 paintings and 37 other pieces were removed by thieves in 30 minutes; or the burglary of the National Gallery in Stockholm in 2000, where thieves used diversionary explosions, tire-puncture devices and a getaway boat.
Hollywood portrayals of art theft perpetuate the idea that it’s a non-violent, victimless crime, says Simon Houpt, author of The Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft.
So who really steals the stuff, and why? The prevailing myth of Mr. Big, the mysterious collector who commissions theft for the pure pleasure of ownership, is roundly dismissed by experts. Richard Ellis, a 10-year veteran of the Art and Antiquities Squad at the New Scotland Yard, is blunt: “I do not think they exist. It’s a bit of nonsense. Nobody has ever come across any evidence that such collections exist.”
Mr. Houpt agrees: “I don’t know any collector that doesn’t like to show off his collection. And you can’t do that if you’ve commissioned a theft.”
In most art thefts, as in other property crimes, thieves are looking for an easily portable, high-value item in a relatively low-security environment. Even the reward value — a fraction of the market value of a piece — makes it worth it. A thief can ransom the art, attempt to collect the reward or try to get a fraction of the worth by sale to an unscrupulous dealer. With increased surveillance of banking after 9/11, stolen art is used frequently as collateral for the drug and arms deals of organized crime.
“The thefts are not haphazard. They are planned by criminals who have a use for the commodity,” says Richard Ellis.
After a heist, he says, the thieves wait until news of the theft is reported in the newspaper, to see the value of the works declared. Then they calculate their percentage of the reward or black market sale.
“They take roughly seven to 10% — which is a hell of a lot more than they started out with. Then they use that as collateral to fund other criminal enterprises,” Mr. Ellis says.
Interpol, the FBI and other police agencies have over the years compiled comprehensive lists of stolen works and frequently e-mail art alerts. Online lists like the Art Loss Register (www.artloss.com) or Trace Looted Art (www.tracelooted art.com) make cross-checking easier. Many countries legally compel dealers and auction houses to register sales.
Most art thefts are from residences and galleries, where security is relatively lax compared with the security at banks, jewellers — and even museums. The police are notified of robberies at residences and galleries, but the public isn’t. Art thieves notoriously repeat their visits if a latent security weakness is suspected.
The pure bulk of the thefts can be spectacular. In Montreal, Charles Abitbol, a notorious underworld art “procurer” and dealer, has been active since 1993, once lifting a $300,000 Riopelle in broad daylight from a Montreal gallery.
“He’s been arrested about eight times here — he knows a lot about art, and he knows everywhere he can sell it … he’s been in jail in seven countries in the world for art crimes,” says Det.-Sgt. Alain Lacoursiere, an art investigator with the economic crimes division of the Surete du Quebec.
“The West End Gang and the Italian Mafia in Montreal know him to be an expert in art crime.”
France and Belgium are known as dumping grounds for stolen art because of laws regarding ownership of stolen property, according to Ellis: “France, Belgium and Switzerland are known as ‘good faith’ countries — their laws say if you buy in good faith, you buy title to the object, notwithstanding the fact that it was stolen,” he says. “Belgium is a bit of a nightmare country. They are not signatories to any of the international conventions … so it has everything going for it if you’re dealing in stolen art.”
In the U.K., the U.S. and Canada the owner of the property never relinquishes title under the criminal code, says Mr. Ellis.
Montreal Gazette

Art theft ranked as fourth-largest criminal enterprise It has been called the world’s biggest museum: an international black market in art the FBI estimates is worth about $6-billion a year. Interpol ranks art theft as the fourth largest criminal enterprise after drugs, money laundering and weapons. And recovery rates are abysmally low, about five to eight per cent. SEPTEMBER 1, 2007  MONTREAL — It has been called the world’s biggest museum: an international black market in art the FBI estimates is worth about $6-billion a year. Interpol ranks art theft as the fourth largest criminal enterprise after drugs, money laundering and weapons. And recovery rates are abysmally low, about five to eight per cent.
Art theft has the cachet of romantic crime — popular culture frequently portrays the art thief as a playboy criminal with an art history degree and a burglar’s mask stuffed into the pocket of his Armani suit.
The modern museum robbery can be quite organized and spectacular, like the Museum of Fine Arts heist in Montreal in 1972, in which 18 paintings and 37 other pieces were removed by thieves in 30 minutes; or the burglary of the National Gallery in Stockholm in 2000, where thieves used diversionary explosions, tire-puncture devices and a getaway boat.
Hollywood portrayals of art theft perpetuate the idea that it’s a non-violent, victimless crime, says Simon Houpt, author of The Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft.
So who really steals the stuff, and why? The prevailing myth of Mr. Big, the mysterious collector who commissions theft for the pure pleasure of ownership, is roundly dismissed by experts. Richard Ellis, a 10-year veteran of the Art and Antiquities Squad at the New Scotland Yard, is blunt: “I do not think they exist. It’s a bit of nonsense. Nobody has ever come across any evidence that such collections exist.”
Mr. Houpt agrees: “I don’t know any collector that doesn’t like to show off his collection. And you can’t do that if you’ve commissioned a theft.”
In most art thefts, as in other property crimes, thieves are looking for an easily portable, high-value item in a relatively low-security environment. Even the reward value — a fraction of the market value of a piece — makes it worth it. A thief can ransom the art, attempt to collect the reward or try to get a fraction of the worth by sale to an unscrupulous dealer. With increased surveillance of banking after 9/11, stolen art is used frequently as collateral for the drug and arms deals of organized crime.
“The thefts are not haphazard. They are planned by criminals who have a use for the commodity,” says Richard Ellis.
After a heist, he says, the thieves wait until news of the theft is reported in the newspaper, to see the value of the works declared. Then they calculate their percentage of the reward or black market sale.
“They take roughly seven to 10% — which is a hell of a lot more than they started out with. Then they use that as collateral to fund other criminal enterprises,” Mr. Ellis says.
Interpol, the FBI and other police agencies have over the years compiled comprehensive lists of stolen works and frequently e-mail art alerts. Online lists like the Art Loss Register (www.artloss.com) or Trace Looted Art (www.tracelooted art.com) make cross-checking easier. Many countries legally compel dealers and auction houses to register sales.
Most art thefts are from residences and galleries, where security is relatively lax compared with the security at banks, jewellers — and even museums. The police are notified of robberies at residences and galleries, but the public isn’t. Art thieves notoriously repeat their visits if a latent security weakness is suspected.
The pure bulk of the thefts can be spectacular. In Montreal, Charles Abitbol, a notorious underworld art “procurer” and dealer, has been active since 1993, once lifting a $300,000 Riopelle in broad daylight from a Montreal gallery.
“He’s been arrested about eight times here — he knows a lot about art, and he knows everywhere he can sell it … he’s been in jail in seven countries in the world for art crimes,” says Det.-Sgt. Alain Lacoursiere, an art investigator with the economic crimes division of the Surete du Quebec.
“The West End Gang and the Italian Mafia in Montreal know him to be an expert in art crime.”
France and Belgium are known as dumping grounds for stolen art because of laws regarding ownership of stolen property, according to Ellis: “France, Belgium and Switzerland are known as ‘good faith’ countries — their laws say if you buy in good faith, you buy title to the object, notwithstanding the fact that it was stolen,” he says. “Belgium is a bit of a nightmare country. They are not signatories to any of the international conventions … so it has everything going for it if you’re dealing in stolen art.”
In the U.K., the U.S. and Canada the owner of the property never relinquishes title under the criminal code, says Mr. Ellis.
Montreal Gazette

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