Finding Buyers for Stolen Art

ByABC News
November 8, 2004, 12:00 PM

Nov. 11, 2004 — -- 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."

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.

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.