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Noted: The Rise of Art Theft

Dec 14, 2011

by Chappell Ellison

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

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.

More Noted Posts | Art Category

49 comments

  • rinamiriam
  • NecessiTees

    NecessiTees said 4 years ago

    Reminds me of the episode when Frasier's dad was on "Antique Road Show" and said "Kaaaa-ching!!!"

  • BirdEnergy

    BirdEnergy said 4 years ago

    Thanks for the info, didn't realize it was such a big dollar amount. Sounds like everyone is just trying to make money in this economy even the thieves. Not a good thing.

  • JulieMeyer

    JulieMeyer said 4 years ago

    This is the kind of crime-busting I'd like if I was detective - seems a lot safer than most crimes detecting.

  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering said 4 years ago

    Thought provoking!

  • jammerjewelry

    jammerjewelry said 4 years ago

    A wonderfully interesting article thanks for sharing.

  • n3do

    n3do said 4 years ago

    I used to paint paintings and make weavings and I've had art stollen from galleries, including at an International Airport Gallery inside an airport with dozens of cameras. No one was caught but it was discussed that if someone were to risk their life and jail time for MY art, I should be VERY proud and have joined the exclusive artist's club of those whose art was so wanted, that someone would risk everything to get it. Well, I didnt get paid for the art and we never knew who stole it. But hey, I still remember the feeling of the story and how it makes me feel special, . . . . in some way. Marty

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage said 4 years ago

    Very informative! Love those shows!

  • RivalryTime

    RivalryTime said 4 years ago

    $7 billion in the US? Wow.

  • n3do

    n3do said 4 years ago

    A year later, I saw one of my paintings at a thrift store. (not a stolen one) OH BOY, how THAT makes you feel. Wooooooooooosh ! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH ! Marty

  • KettleConfections

    KettleConfections said 4 years ago

    Most likely two factors for this, higher values placed on rare handmade items, plus the fact that you can sell them online- there should be a way to verify if the antique items you are buying was obtained legitimately.

  • MissHildebrandt

    MissHildebrandt said 4 years ago

    so I guess I should be lucky to have been 'stiffed' before!!!

  • n3do

    n3do said 4 years ago

    If you make and or sell expensive stuff. . . . don't put your home address on your return address labels or advertise your address. . . . . there are professional trolls out there . . . . . looking. They can buy something cheap, just to get your home address from the label. And with Google Earth and Mapquest, they can see exactly where you live and what your cars look like and what is in the back yard. You get the point.

  • TheBloomingThread

    TheBloomingThread said 4 years ago

    oh my gosh? thats crazy?... i love wacthing American Pickers, and Picker Sisters - hopefully these shows continue to inpsire people in FINDING hidden treasures, and appreciating their value. not stealing them!

  • KawaiiBits

    KawaiiBits said 4 years ago

    What is the world coming to :(

  • VoleedeMoineaux

    VoleedeMoineaux said 4 years ago

    Well at least you know now.

  • peshka

    peshka said 4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing

  • Grafxquest

    Grafxquest said 4 years ago

    I cant wait till someone steals one of my paintings...not only would I be flattered but that would mean I finally made it big! :)

  • paramountvintage

    paramountvintage said 4 years ago

    very interesting. it's about time historic items get some attention :)

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 said 4 years ago

    My aunt is sure she has a Cezanne that she bought at a garage sale. It's oil on canvas, which is proof enough for her and the tacky frame that says "hecho en Mexico" on the back won't change her mind. It proudly hangs in her living room. I hope to inherit it one day.

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage said 4 years ago

    Interesting! I guess as a former Art History major, I should have cared about Goya's brushstrokes.

  • Walkingquail

    Walkingquail said 4 years ago

    Many of my artist friends agree that you sort of have to look at theft of our art as a compliment because it is very difficult to value it when seeking coverage from your insurance company. We are certainly not in the mega important art category but we often have to exhibit in places with virtually no security all in the interest of possibly making a sale. So it is sort of a backwards compliment to all artists that our work has value. Weird, to say the least.

  • rollad6

    rollad6 said 4 years ago

    So sad. :( Roll for initiative, J & J

  • AlpineGypsy

    AlpineGypsy said 4 years ago

    Oh my gosh, I had no idea it was so bad! Thieves will steal anything that isn't nailed down, and sometimes even those things so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Seriously though, what ever happened to working hard for a living? It's sad. Heidi

  • kokopellicrazy

    kokopellicrazy said 4 years ago

    So sad because the thieves are in it for the money and worth, not for the Real Value of the art.

  • QuirkMuseum

    QuirkMuseum said 4 years ago

    Artists and Etsy people are the complete opposite of these thieves. We're more likely to "donate" one of our pieces to an art museum by hanging it illegally.

  • LabyrinthLeather

    LabyrinthLeather said 4 years ago

    I once did a university project on 'lost' art - art that had been stolen, or destroyed, but there was still a visual record for it. It was really interesting to research....

  • RossLab

    RossLab said 4 years ago

    That's bad, indeed.

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 4 years ago

    Awww...

  • TastefulThings

    TastefulThings said 4 years ago

    art objects and antiques tempt black market dealers/collectors not necessarily with their monetary value, but with their originality and beauty that is translated in cash value attached to those objects... this type of beauty seduction is harder to resist. I'd rather own the Monet's The House of Yerres not because it is worth lots of money or is a great investment, just because its worth of much visual pleasure and stirs deep emotions in those who admire it.

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 4 years ago

    Scary, I guess you have to take into account the cultural impact of art and other associated documents. In the UK a chap stole a first edition copy of the entire works of Shakespeare and justified it by saying it was 'borrowing'...

  • MollysMuses

    MollysMuses said 4 years ago

    Great piece and wonderful pic ellemoss

  • HardlySimpleDesigns

    HardlySimpleDesigns said 4 years ago

    I watched a special on MSNBC one time about art thiefs. It was set up much like the "Catch a Predator" series. Mostly, about groups of theives that sell stolen original art or reproductions of originals and sell them as originals for high dollar amounts. It was very enlightening. Hopefully one day, I can put to use my Criminal Justice degree and love of art to use and join one of these law enforcement groups to help decrease that $7 billion.

  • OldBaltimoreVintage

    OldBaltimoreVintage said 4 years ago

    Ehhh not sure I would blame art theft on Pawn Stars or any other show that features old, valuable stuff. I think that when the (global) economy is bad, crime in general gets a huge surge. Like you said, there is no money in the banks, and when money looses its value, things that are intrinsically valuable become inflated automatically. So people who would be robbing banks are now stealing art, because art is a better investment than actual money, and therefore more worthy of a thief's time, energy, risk, etc. I read somewhere that a Basquiat painting sold for 300 million dollars (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-27/basquiat-s-price-soars-fivefold-as-320-million-auctions-start.html).

  • OldBaltimoreVintage

    OldBaltimoreVintage said 4 years ago

    And the fact that it sold for that much kind of proves that the art market is inflated. I can't find the article that makes this point better than I can, I think it's on the Guardian UK website somewhere... So anyway yeah, that's what I think.

  • loyalgong

    loyalgong said 4 years ago

    Nice piece. think that when the (global) economy is bad, crime in general gets a huge surge. Like you said, there is no money in the banks, and when money looses its value, things that are intrinsically valuable become inflated automatically. And I find a good website for women's shoes,it can be help you choice your favourite shoe. christian louboutin clearance . http://www.christianlouboutinsclearancesale.com.

  • WuzzysCreations

    WuzzysCreations said 4 years ago

    Awww... I've always believed old items, vintage pieces are valuable. It depends on the buyer...there are rare pieces or items that are hard to find that hit a certain cord with us that we just have to have and in those moments, at times, if money is available, we purchase them. Sentimental value. Childhood memories. All count. Great read, thanks for sharing! :)

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 4 years ago

    $7 billion, whoa!

  • KKSimpleRegalJewelry

    KKSimpleRegalJewelry said 4 years ago

    Interesting... ~KK~

  • MerCurios

    MerCurios said 4 years ago

    Art theft has always been an issue, just not as highly publicized. I don't watch much TV, or any show regularly, but I did happen to catch an episode of Blue Bloods recently where "Art Theft" was one of the main plots. Interestingly enough, the gentleman claimed to be "repossessing" art for the rightful and original owners - countries and private collections that had been pilfered during various wars.

  • JulissiaandCo

    JulissiaandCo said 4 years ago

    WOW! Love this article! I did a report on art theft (on an art detective actually) _way back_ in high school for art class- kind of a blend of two of my interests..art and mysteries. (I blame Scooby Doo for this :) )

  • OnlyOriginalsByAJ

    OnlyOriginalsByAJ said 4 years ago

    Great article! Thanks for sharing! I think its interesting that we read about art theft and say oh, that's terrible, its sad, why would people do that. But yet, every time I watch Ocean's 11 or The Big Hit, I always hope that bank robber gets away :)

  • ExoticAllureJewelry

    ExoticAllureJewelry said 4 years ago

    some things in life we take for granted of being there no matter what. the protection of art work is something to many people over look. i loved how thought provoking this article is

  • BigBadBuddha

    BigBadBuddha said 4 years ago

    I think it shows that art is becoming a valuable resource

  • JewelsbyJasmin

    JewelsbyJasmin said 4 years ago

    Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

  • RedFernVintage

    RedFernVintage said 4 years ago

    What a cool article, thanks.

  • cinthyacr

    cinthyacr said 4 years ago

    I read Wittman's book last year. It's an amazing story about this underground crime scene. What shocked me the most was to think that a few people disregard the fact that art (as well as craft and design) is a seminal part of culture, of human life itself and to think that it can be stolen from us that way blows my mind. It's like taking a part from our own history to satisfy someone else's ego. To me art, craft and design are such communal activities and the products of those activities are to be shared with the world. It's hard to think that all art, craft and design belongs to all of us, more so because all these products can be bought (and stolen) but it goes beyond product making/creating. The activity itself is like food to our communities. Imagine a painting that will never be actually seen again if not by photos in a book. It's just so disappointing.

  • Marumadrid

    Marumadrid said 4 years ago

    Maybe I'm naive, but if there's no murders, violence or damage... I'd maybe could let go an art thief.

  • jafabrit

    jafabrit said 3 years ago

    I have traced quite a few copyright thieves on etsy doing a reverse image search on google. Even when copyright thieves change the image file or meta tags, because the search is based on image recognition it is able to find an artists images in places normal searches can't find.

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