Protecting Cultural Heritage from art theft international challenge, local opportunity

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Date: Mar. 2012
From: The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin(Vol. 81, Issue 3)
Publisher: Federal Bureau of Investigation
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,426 words
Lexile Measure: 1680L

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When someone thinks of art crime, a Hollywood image is conjured, one of black-clad cat burglars and thieves in top hats and white gloves. But, the truth behind art crime, one misunderstood by the general public and professionals alike, is far more sinister and intriguing. Art crime has its share of cinematic thefts and larger-than-life characters, but it also is the realm of international organized crime syndicates, the involvement of which results in art crime funding all manner of other serious offenses, including those pertaining to the drug trade and terrorism. Art crime has shifted from a relatively innocuous, ideological crime into a major international plague.

Over the last 50 years, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has ranked art crime behind only drugs and arms in terms of highest-grossing criminal trades. (1) There are hundreds of thousands of art crimes reported per year, but, despite this fact, the general public only hears about the handful of big-name museum heists that make international headlines. In Italy alone there are 20,000 to 30,000 thefts reported annually, and many more go unreported. (2) In fact, even though reported art crime ranks third in the list of criminal trades, many more such incidents go unreported worldwide, rather than coming to the attention of authorities, making its true scale much broader and more difficult to estimate.

Fundamentalist terrorist groups rely on looted antiquities as a major funding source. Mohammed Atta tried to sell looted antiquities in 1999 as a funding source for the 9/11 attacks. (3) In regions, such as Afghanistan, local farmers dig up treasure troves beneath the soil and sell them to local criminal or government organizations for a tiny fraction of their actual value. The antiquities then are smuggled abroad, given a false provenance, and sold, often on an open market to unsuspecting museums and collectors who never would imagine that their purchase might indirectly fund the Taliban. (4) One of the most important ways to get the general public and governments alike to take art crime as seriously as it warrants is to highlight the ways in which this seemingly innocuous category of crime not only depletes and damages the world's art and its understanding of it but also fuels the arms trade, drug trafficking, and terrorist activity.(5)

Before World War II, most art theft adhered to the cliche of dramatic museum heists carried out by skillful cat burglars, which has been perpetuated by fiction and the media. But, the reality proves far more menacing as the recent rash of "blitz" thefts indicates. From the Munch Museum to the Buhrle Collection to the Stockholm Museum, the latest trend in art theft is for anncd, masked thieves to burst into museums, wave their guns around, grab objects near the exit, and run off. They set off alarms, but because police response time to alarms may be 3 to 5 minutes, the thieves depart in under 2 minutes and avoid any chance of capture.

Since 1960, television media began reporting and glorifying...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A283489539