The World of Art Theft

A blue-eyed man with short facial hair, looking worried and to the side

Portrait of an Art Thief

There is a thriving underground of stolen art where thieves either sell the works to private collectors or build their own secret gallery for themselves.

One of the most infamous secret gallery owners was Stephane Breitwieser, who in 1995 was a young man who lived with his mother, worked as a waiter and successfully stole hundreds of works of art from galleries throughout Europe. His motive? Love for the work. Breitwieser’s spree ended in November 2001, when he was caught attempting to steal a Bugle from a museum in Lucerne, Switzerland. Breitwieser admitted to stealing 239 artworks and other exhibits together valued at 1.4 billion dollars, and in January 2005, he began a 26-month prison sentence. A devoted art connoisseur, he was able to recall in court the smallest detail of every piece he stole.

Unbelievably, more than 60 of the stolen paintings—including masterpieces by Brueghel, Watteau and Francois Boucher—were destroyed by Breitwieser's mother after his arrest because she thought it was dangerous to have them around the house. She served 18 months in jail, and Breitwieser's accomplice-girlfriend served six.

A white man in a white shirt with a receding hairline sits at a table lined with reprints of paintings next to an elderly white man wearing a white shirt, tie, black hat and an eye patch who is pointing to one of the sheets of paper on the table

The great thing about the art and antiques community is that there are not many of us doing it. So we all know each other.  
—Dick Ellis, Art Detective, Scotland Yard

In the wide world of art theft, characters abound. From impulsive, small-time crooks to sophisticated thieves who methodically plot their crimes and wait for years to unload their goods, there is no single profile that fits.

According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), art theft is a growing problem that incurs annual losses upward of eight billion dollars, with cases that drag on for years, or, as much as 90 percent of the time, go unsolved. Why such a high percentage? From the perspective of international law enforcement, there are three primary reasons: stolen works are poorly documented at the time of the theft, collectors and curators are not required to submit reports or descriptions to databases, and the art market is unregulated and lacks the protections and recovery procedures other stolen properties have.

Who are the Art Detectives?

Just like the characters they chase, art theft investigators come in a variety of sizes and colors, with different strengths, backgrounds and experiences. Some art detectives, like Harold Smith in STOLEN, are hired by insurance companies such as CHUBB or Lloyds of London, and travel the world hunting stolen pieces.

Other investigators work for Interpol, Scotland Yard, or the FBI. At the FBI, Art Theft Program Manager Lynne Chaffinch came to her post with a museum background, degrees in anthropology and museum studies and with a knowledge of computers that has been essential in managing the Bureau’s National Stolen Art File, one of the key tools used internationally to recover stolen art.

A headshot of Dick Ellis, a middle-aged white man wearing a striped button-down shirt and tie
Dick Ellis, formerly of Scotland Yard's
Art & Antiques Squad

Over at Scotland Yard, Dick Ellis, who was also featured in STOLEN, grew up in a family where art was highly valued and practiced. Soon after he became a police officer his parents’ house was robbed and he ended up recovering their silver and arresting his first receivers of stolen goods at a local market. Eventually he also captured the burglar, and it was this experience combined with his natural love of art that piqued his interest in finding stolen works for a living.

The Art of Recovering Art

Art detectives investigate forgeries, stolen or smuggled art and archaeological thefts using the same investigative techniques as other detectives would use, along with access to a specialized knowledge of art and of the particular stolen work. Just as street detectives maintain connections to members of their particular world, an art theft investigator cultivates relationships with members of art communities all over the globe who will report thefts, contribute to databases, provide tips, authenticate works and offer appraisals in court.

Above all, recovering art involves networking, communication and keeping an ear to the ground for news of surfacing or stolen works. It also requires a tolerance for long hours at a computer and periods that are slow and tedious, with false leads, dashed hopes and mounds of paperwork and bureaucracy associated with navigating the different legal systems around the world. These detectives are members of a small club that knows how to stay in touch, with web sites, databases and international seminars that reinforce worldwide cooperation among police and government agencies.

Interestingly, art theft patterns differ between the U.S. and overseas. In America stolen art is usually a byproduct of a residential heist. Since these thieves are not knowledgeable about art, they often unload their loot without realizing its true value.

As a result, investigators recover priceless stolen artwork from places as unlikely as flea markets or garage sales. In one famous example, a portrait of actress Lana Turner was stolen from her house before it was finished. Fifty years later it resurfaced in the possession of a legitimate art collector who had no idea that it had ever been stolen.

A man in a gray suit wearing an eye patch and black hat holds a cell phone to his ear
Harold Smith, independent art detective

The Secret Weapon: An International Database

In contrast, overseas art thieves usually target a work before they steal it. The art is usually stolen to create forgeries, commit fraud, hold for ransom or make a trade for drugs. These are among the most patient thieves, who may wait for decades before attempting to sell a piece of stolen art in hopes that its history will be forgotten.

But whether the investigation is run privately, for an insurance company, by government officers, in the U.S. or overseas, the basics remain the same—art detectives rely on their close relationships with collectors, curators, auction houses, dealers and appraisers in combination with knowledge of art, the art markets and the latest changes in legislation affecting art.

Now the goal is to find a way to better house all of that information and more widely publicize the missing art. This has led to successful efforts to create international databases of stolen works such as the Art Loss Register and those run by the FBI and Interpol, which are making it increasingly difficult for art thieves to sell stolen items without getting caught.

Collectors and curators are encouraged to also register an "Object ID" describing their stolen work. The Object ID was developed by the Getty Museum in 1993, and is now the international standard for law enforcement agencies. According to the FBI, the odds of recovery increase tremendously if the ID system is used along with a color photograph.

But as useful as the tools are, they can never be fully realized without solving those three problems at the root of so many unsolved cases—compliance with documenting the stolen work, requirements for reporting its theft and a legal structure unburdened by bureaucracy that can more fluidly systemize recovery.

Read a Q&A with "The Turbocharger," a police informant >>

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