There’s something jarring about opening a newspaper and reading a story about a bank heist. Images of Bonnie and Clyde come to mind, seeming far removed from modern-day criminal activity. Similarly, art theft conjures old fashioned images, the kind of high-class crime that only seems appropriate in a James Bond film. Yet far from being a crime of the past, robbery of fine art has only increased over the past decade; America alone is the scene of $7 billion worth of illegally traded art, a fact that doesn’t sit too well with some invested parties. An article in The Vancouver Sun highlights how one of the lesser known sectors of the FBI is known as the Art Crime Team, comprised of policemen who’ve grown tired of looking at dead bodies. And the Los Angeles Police Department created the Art Theft Detail, a one-man unit focused entirely on recovering cultural property.
Despite having a job where they remain faceless, agents dedicated to busting art criminals fear that such cases aren’t getting the attention they deserve. “I don’t think law enforcement has caught up to the idea that there’s a difference between presidential documents and jewelry or your car,” said Derek Fincham, a professor at the South Texas College of Law. “You want to preserve these objects and this historical record for future generations.” For Robert Whittman, an agent who helped develop the Art Crime Team, it’s more than just putting the bad guy in jail. “I wasn’t so interested all the time in catching somebody,” said Wittman. “I was more interested in recovering the art. It always seemed more important to recover it and have it for our children than it was to catch some guy and have [him get] three years in prison.”
So why is art theft on the rise? Some blame a combination of a bad economy and reality television. “We all know banks have no money anymore,” says Robert Goldman, a former prosecutor who now works on art theft cases. “People watch Antiques Roadshow and Pawn Stars and all these other shows that are on cable, and everybody now believes that there’s incredible value in old stuff.” It’s true, never have we had so many television shows that celebrate the monetary value of our historical objects. Such large sums are tempting for would-be thieves. Yet as one of the oldest forms of criminal activity, theft goes beyond the influence of television, proving that there will always be a need for task forces to protect our cultural objects.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.