Edmonton Journal

FBI paints bleak picture for art crimes

- CAMERON SKENE

It has been called the world’s biggest museum: an internatio­nal black market in art the FBI estimates is worth about $6 billion a year.

Interpol ranks art theft as the fourthlarg­est criminal enterprise after drugs, money laundering and weapons. And recovery rates are abysmally low, about five to eight per cent.

Art theft has the cachet of romantic crime — popular culture frequently portrays the art thief as a playboy criminal with an art history degree and a burglar’s mask stuffed into the pocket of his Armani suit.

The modern museum robbery can be quite organized and spectacula­r, like the Museum of Fine Arts heist in Montreal in 1972, in which 18 paintings and 37 other pieces were removed by thieves in 30 minutes; or the burglary of the Na- tional Gallery in Stockholm in 2000, where thieves used diversiona­ry explosions, tire-puncture devices and a getaway boat.

Hollywood portrayals of art theft perpetuate the idea that it’s a non-violent, victimless crime, says Simon Houpt, author of The Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft.

So who really steals the stuff, and why? The prevailing myth of Mr. Big, the mysterious collector who commission­s theft for the pure pleasure of ownership, is roundly dismissed by experts. Richard Ellis, a 10-year veteran of the Art and Antiquitie­s Squad at the New Scotland Yard, is blunt: “I do not think they exist. It’s a bit of nonsense. Nobody has ever come across any evidence that such collection­s exist.”

Houpt agrees: “I don’t know any collector that doesn’t like to show off his collection. And you can’t do that if you’ve commission­ed a theft.”

In most art thefts, as in other proper- ty crimes, thieves are looking for an easily portable, high-value item in a relatively low-security environmen­t. Even the reward value — a fraction of the market value of a piece — makes it worth it. A thief can ransom the art, attempt to collect the reward or try to get a fraction of the worth by sale to an unscrupulo­us dealer. Stolen art is used frequently as collateral for the drug and arms deals of organized crime.

“The thefts are not haphazard. They are planned by criminals who have a use for the commodity,” says Richard Ellis.

After a heist, he says, the thieves wait until news of the theft is reported in the newspaper to see the value of the works declared. Then they calculate their percentage of the reward or blackmarke­t sale. “They take roughly seven to 10 per cent — which is a hell of a lot more than they started out with. Then they use that as collateral to fund other criminal enterprise­s,” Ellis says.

 ?? CANWEST NEWS SERVICE, FILE ?? Rembrandt’s Landscape with Cottages, one of the many works stolen in Montreal that was never recovered.
CANWEST NEWS SERVICE, FILE Rembrandt’s Landscape with Cottages, one of the many works stolen in Montreal that was never recovered.

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