Art Theft: Big Money, Big Problems

How to Steal a Million. Entrapment. The Thomas Crown Affair.

The story of an art thief is a common tale in Hollywood — but it may be even more common in real life.

Tens of thousands of works of art are stolen yearly, experts say. In 1998 alone, over 60,000 works of art were stolen, according to the international police organization, Interpol.

Interpol says art theft is a crime exceeded in dollar value only by drug trafficking, money laundering and arms dealing. Estimates have put the losses at $4 to 6 billion worldwide.

In the most spectacular art heist in modern history, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on March 18, 1990, the take was said to be as much as $300 million.

Two men, dressed as Boston police officers, talked their way into the compound after hours and overpowered the staff. They tied them up, and then took 12 works of art, including five Degas, three Rembrants, a Vermeer, and a Manet — all in an hour-and-a-half.

The pair removed the surveillance tape before they left, and more than a decade later, they still have not been caught.

No Mr. Big

There have been suggestions that a collector may have been behind the theft at the Gardner Museum, because it involved such a coherent group of pieces. But it's very unlikely that an unscrupulous cabal of tycoons is commissioning art thefts the world over, experts say.

"We've always heard this about private collectors [sponsoring these heists,]" said Lynne Chaffinch, the manager of the FBI's art theft program. "But in all my years I've never found one of these infamous private collectors."

The truth is, most art thefts are committed by everyday opportunists.

"A criminal that will steal a car or a VCR is the most likely person to steal a piece of art," said David Shillingford, the Director of Marketing and Operations at The Art Loss Register.

The Art Loss Register is a database that lists stolen works of art that any potential buyers can check if a piece of work has been stolen.

Statistics from the Art Loss Register show that it's not great heists that make up the bulk of art thefts. Over half of the thefts they recorded between 1991 and 1998 were from private residences. Less than a quarter were from galleries and museums.

Imaginative Pieces, Dull Thieves

When the great heists, do occur, they are often artworks that simply have gotten a lot of publicity, say experts. Potential thieves see a huge figure attached to a certain piece of art, and get motivated by it.

For example, there was a spate of theft in impressionist artwork in the 1980s, when there was a big surge in interest in impressionist art, said Shillingford. "Criminals somewhere saw them and this gave them an idea."

Europe's most notorious art heist at the private Marmottan Museum in Paris on October 27, 1985, may be an example of this.

Four or five brazen thieves hit the museum on a Sunday morning, forcing visitors to lie face down while they grabbed nine masterpieces — among them, Monet's Impression, Sun Rising, a painting that gave its name to the Impressionist movement itself.

The raid happened in five minutes — so quickly that no one even remembered the make of the car. But the museum's director did notice something odd about the take: the stolen paintings were the only ones shown in color in the museum's catalog.

The paintings were found five years later, but the theives have never been caught. It is believed that the thieves took such well-known paintings that they were impossible to sell.

Even when lesser-known but equally valuable works are stolen, they are often sold for much less than they're worth. For example, there's the American GI who stole a pair of paintings by Albrecht Duerer from a German castle in 1945.

In 1946, he sold the 500-year-old paintings for $450. They were estimated at several million at the time.

Holes in the Wall

The fact that art is often one of the least secure commodities doesn't help either.

The bulk of art thefts happen in places that seldom have multi-million dollar security, like private residences, or churches.

Museums are often found lacking as well — because they would rather spend their scarce resources on attracting visitors.

However, they are quickly learning that security itself is part of that goal, since many of them put on shows with borrowed artwork, so "anyone looking to loan is likely to be put off if they think security is not there," said Shillingford.

As a result, museums are getting everything from ultrasonic and microwave sensors that keep track of visitors in a gallery — to sensors that can locate a work of art after its stolen.

Nevertheless, it's very unlikely that art theft will ever end.

In fact, an armed trio of thieves pulled off another heist in Stockholm, just before the new year — and this one too, despite the odds, was one straight out of Hollywood.

The gang entered Sweden's National Museum in Stockholm just before closing, threatened staff with a submachine gun and ripped a Rembrandt and two Renoirs from the walls.

The thieves escaped by a boat moored near the museum, and the paintings have yet to be found. The paintings were estimated at $30 million.