Soaring prices in the art market have escalated the value of these pilfered pieces beyond what even the thieves could have imagined.

The Gallery of Stolen Art

Soaring prices in the art market have escalated the value of these pilfered pieces beyond what even the thieves could have imagined.

The Concert, Johannes Vermeer 

Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.

The three men who broke into Ivan Aird’s home in May knew what they were looking for. Aird, an art dealer in Britain, was a friend of the late English painter L.S. Lowry, whose work had recently skyrocketed in price. The thieves burst through Aird’s front door at 8 a.m., forced him to his knees at knifepoint, tied up his wife and two-year-old daughter, and made off with $3 million in Lowrys. It was the latest incident in a rash of audacious art thefts in Britain. Last year, a gang hurled a manhole cover through a gallery window and stole 15 Lowrys, and in 2005, three men used a crane to remove a two-ton, $6 million Henry Moore bronze sculpture from a park.

The crime wave has kept pace with the booming art market, in which an “average” Picasso can fetch $50 million. The F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team estimates annual losses as high as $6 billion, and Interpol ranks illegal art as a criminal enterprise outpaced only by drug smuggling, money laundering, and arms dealing.

Luckily for victims, unloading a recognizable painting is even harder than stealing it. As convertible currency, a masterpiece is almost worthless. (Still, buyers can be duped: Steven Spielberg learned this year that a $700,000 Norman Rockwell he bought in 1989 had been stolen from a St. Louis gallery in 1973. The F.B.I. is letting him keep it until its “disposition can be determined.”) For thieves, the real action is in antiquities, which are often harder to identify as stolen than contemporary works. In the past decade, criminals have increasingly relied on online auction sites to sell stolen pieces, according to Tammy Hilburn, an analyst for Interpol.

Sometimes there are happy endings—Leonardo da Vinci’s 1501 painting Madonna of the Yarnwinder, taken from a Scottish castle in 2003, was recovered intact in October, and several versions of Edvard Munch’s iconic The Scream have also been found unharmed. But there are horror stories too. After a veteran French art thief was arrested in 2002, his mother destroyed $1.4 billion in evidence, chopping up 60 paintings and dumping 112 objects into a canal. British officials fear the Moore sculpture will be melted down for the bronze, worth just a few thousand dollars. “A lot of these people don’t know what they’re stealing,” Hilburn says.

The fate of the art pictured in our slide show—possibly the only way such pieces will ever again be shown—remains a puzzle to law-enforcement officials. Here’s a rare opportunity to see these works. (View slideshow.)

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