There have been some major art thefts from museums lately and when this happens, the public often thinks back to films like "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "How to Steal a Million," where sophisticated thieves rappel down through skylights to make off with incredibly valuable art. But the reality is not nearly so glamorous.
While the FBI calls the illicit trade of stolen art and antiquities serious, with losses as high as $6 billion a year, in the real world, these thieves are the same guys who rob armored cars for cash, pharmacies for drugs and homes for jewelry. They are often opportunistic and almost always shortsighted.
Most of the people who steal art do it only once, because it is incredibly difficult and because it’s nearly impossible to fence a stolen masterpiece, even for pennies on the dollar, so incredibly valuable paintings end up being found (sometimes on a tip to the FBI after a reward is offered) in places like janitors’ closets and garages.
Some paintings are simply misplaced: A Roy Lichtenstein painting has been returned after being missing for over 40 years, after it was sent out for cleaning by an art gallery and never seen again. It mysteriously reappeared in a New York warehouse and was returned to Lichtenstein’s widow. But there was some sort of art theft involved–the painting had been shipped to the Upper East Side warehouse from a gallery in Bogotá, Columbia, which was apparently getting ready to put it up for sale.
After the 1961 theft of Goya’s "Duke of Wellington" from the National Gallery in London, the UK press blamed cunning art thieves, but the truth was that the painting was taken by a retired man who entered the museum through a bathroom window. In 1973, a thief was arrested for stealing two Rembrandts from the Taft Museum in Cincinnati. After serving a prison term, he was later arrested for shoplifting a tube of toothpaste and some candy bars.
The FBI’s Art Crime Team has learned that over 90% of all museum thefts involve some form of inside information, so the best approach is to look at active local robbery gangs, and to investigate connections between past and present employees and known criminals.
In the October 17th edition of the New York Times, Anthony M. Amore writes: "Confronting these realities is essential to preventing more pieces of our cultural heritage from being lost."
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