Finding Buyers for Stolen Art

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.

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