Finding Buyers for Stolen Art

On a Sunday afternoon in late August, three masked thieves entered a Norwegian museum and shortly after walked out with two Edvard Munch paintings, including one of four existing versions of the painter's famous work "The Scream," valued at up to $75 million. Not bad for a few minutes' work.

But what next? The two paintings could fetch tens of millions of dollars if put up for auction, but experts say the odds of selling such a well-known piece after a widely publicized heist are extremely slim.

"There is no legitimate market for 'The Scream.' It's too iconic and too well-known," said Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization in New York.

Nevertheless, art theft can be an extremely lucrative endeavor. Interpol has estimated that it is the fourth most profitable crime in the world, behind drug trafficking, money laundering and illegal arms trading. Recovering stolen art is a tricky endeavor.

In the United States, law enforcement dedicated to art theft has traditionally been a highly specialized and thinly populated force. The FBI employs only one special agent dedicated specifically to art crimes. And local police are often handcuffed when stolen items change hands and end up across state or even international borders.

"You can't investigate a London robbery if you're a cop in Detroit," said David Shillingford, marketing and operations director of the Art Loss Register, a private company founded by auction houses, insurance companies and art dealers that tracks and catalogs stolen art worldwide. "It's just not a huge priority for law enforcement."

Cataloguing Art Theft

The FBI categorizes art theft with other property theft crimes like armed robbery, car theft and bank robbery. In contrast, France, Spain and Italy all employ art-specific departments comprised of agents well-versed in the intricacies of art crimes.

"We actually have a lot more manpower, but not the specific training in art crimes like they have in Italy or Spain," said FBI Special Agent Bob Wittman, the bureau's sole art crimes expert. "Investigatively, it's a different thing. Art theft from a museum is obviously different from a car theft."

Wittman has been investigating art crimes for 15 years, and he said the FBI's Philadelphia field office has recovered more than $100 million worth of stolen art in the last four years.

But many crimes go unsolved. Shillingford estimates that only 30 percent of stolen artwork worth more than $1 million is returned within 10 years. The recovery rate is even lower for less expensive pieces that may not have a photograph on file with the Art Loss Register.

"Anything worth less than $50,000 has a very low chance of recovery because chances are we don't have a photograph," Shillingford said.

Registers Hinder Resale

Police databases are often short on photos and details, and officers rarely have the expertise to identify fine art and verify stolen items.

Because of this, the art world has attempted to limit the opportunities to profit from theft. The Art Loss Register has close to 145,000 stolen works of art catalogued in its database and adds approximately 10,000 more every year. Shillingford said most reputable auction houses, galleries and museums run checks through the register before purchasing a work to make sure it has not been reported stolen.

Widespread use of the database and others like it has made it more difficult for thieves to pawn off stolen art on legitimate but unsuspecting galleries or dealers. And even if buyers are found, stolen art can only be sold at a considerable discount.

"For stolen property you're usually talking about a resale around 10 percent of the total value, and art is the same way," Wittman said.

But art theft is usually a lot less risky than other forms of robbery. The Norwegian guards protecting "The Scream" were not armed, and at least one of the thieves was carrying a gun.

"You can steal a $1 million painting and sell it for only $100,000, but it may be a lot easier than stealing $100,000 from a bank," Shillingford said.

Turning Theft Into Profit

High-profile, high-value heists are often followed by ransom demands, and in some cases owners have paid for the return of stolen art. But thieves expecting insurance companies to pay huge ransoms are usually disappointed.

Insurance agents say there is no reason to pay off ransom, as it rewards criminals and offers an incentive to others who might like a quick payday. Instead, insurers offer rewards for information about a theft.

Most major art insurers work closely with the Art Loss Register to report and list stolen works quickly after thefts occur. And for the most comprehensive coverage, insurance companies consult their clients on the best way to protect their holdings.

"There are some obvious things like not putting the most expensive pieces near the door. But really we're in a more high-tech age now. What you need now are things like panic buttons," said Dorit Straus, worldwide fine arts manager with Chubb Insurance.

Eccentric Collector Thieves

So what of the eccentric art buff ordering a theft not for financial gain, but simply to have expensive, well-known art adorn the walls of his home, à la the movie "The Thomas Crown Affair"?

"There's a myth of this 'Dr. No' figure acquiring all these pieces, but usually stolen art is sold to someone who has no knowledge it has been stolen," Wittman said.

Wittman said it is far more likely to have a painting stolen during a simple house burglary than an elaborately planned museum job. The Art Loss Register estimates that 54 percent of art theft occurs in domestic dwellings, while museum and gallery thefts only account for 24 percent.

"From our experience, there's not someone ordering these thefts. It's more a crime of opportunity," Wittman said. "Stolen art is sometimes sold to an underground buyer, but usually it's to a buyer who is uninformed."

Recovering Stolen Items

Recoveries usually occur years after a heist takes place, and it is not unusual for stolen art to turn up in estate sales decades after their theft. A buyer may purchase a piece and hang it in a home for 10 to 20 years before unsuspecting relatives discover its worth after the buyer's death.

And while the trails are often murky, it is not unusual for investigators to follow transactions all over the world before pinpointing the location of a stolen piece. In 1978, burglars casually walked out of a Minnesota museum with seven Norman Rockwell paintings. It took investigators 16 years to learn that at least five of the paintings were in the possession of an art gallery owner in Rio de Janeiro.

The Minnesota museum purchased two of the paintings from the Rio gallery in 1999. Later that year, the FBI recovered two more of the stolen Rockwells from a Brazilian man after he tried to sell them to a Philadelphia gallery. He claimed to be unaware of any theft and was not charged with a crime. The final three paintings were recovered by Wittman and another FBI agent in a Brazilian farmhouse in 2001.

Smaller Thefts Harder to Investigate

Smaller cases are more difficult to investigate, experts said. Although the painting is worth millions, stealing "The Scream" may not be as immediately profitable as stealing a lesser-known, more obscure painting that isn't as easily traced.

"The more uniquely identifiable the object, the more famous the work and the more publicized the theft, the harder it is to market," IFAR's Flescher said. "But a nondescript landscape painting by a less-well-known artist might be easier to sell."

It's rare that an art theft results from an intricately planned scheme in a public place. Theft of lesser-known works is more the norm as they are often less protected and easier to fence.

But that doesn't preclude the occasional high-profile heist.

Officials at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum are still waiting for a resolution after enduring one of the largest art heists in history more than 14 years ago. Thirteen paintings, including works by Rembrandt and Manet, with an estimated worth as high as $300 million, were stolen from the museum by thieves posing as Boston police officers in 1990. The works have not yet been recovered despite a $5 million reward offered for information.

To this point, there has been no publicized ransom demand for "The Scream." More than two months have passed, but it's still early in the game, relatively speaking.

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