Thefts USA

Art thefts on the rise across North America

Experts and police say high profile of valuable works leads to crime increase

Los Angeles Sheriff detective Estevan Martinez, LASD lead detective Clarence Williams and and Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore, display the recovered $250,000 quill pen Rembrandt drawing "The Judgment", which had been stolen this summer from a display in a hotel lobby

NEW YORK. A recent spate of high profile thefts suggests that art crime is increasing. The FBI estimates that international art crime, which includes fakes, forgeries and thefts, is now worth more than $6bn annually.

This figure has doubled from around $3bn a decade ago, according to former federal agent Robert Wittman. “Art crime is on the rise because it is basically an economic crime. Art is one of the safe havens at this point, as far as assets are concerned, and criminals are not immune to seeing that in the papers and seeing the rise in auction prices,” said Wittman, who now runs a private consultancy which specialises in recovering lost or stolen art.

Others argue that the volume of crime itself has not increased, but rather the public's awareness of it. As the value of art has soared, the media’s interest in it, and coverage of thefts, has risen in tandem, creating the perception of increased crime levels. “Art crime is seen as a sexy crime so is widely reported in the papers: an exciting heist makes a great news story,” said Robert Korzinek, fine art expert at specialist insurer Hiscox. The firm sustained a £85.6m pre-tax loss in the first half of the year. While the bulk of this figure is unrelated to art, due largely to natural catastrophes, hefty art claims took a notable toll, with large pay-outs on policies including a painting stolen from a Dutch museum and a work damaged in transit. However, Korzinek argues that art crime itself is not necessarily on the rise, but rather that “its importance is seen as different now. Ten years ago works of art were worth considerably less—the age of the $100m picture hadn’t arrived, and that injected a whole new glamour into the art world. It increases the attention.”

Art lawyer Donn Zaretsky of John Silberman Associates agrees: “The increased coverage of art theft may be leading to ever more art theft, because one common feature of many art theft stories is just how easy it is. You hear about underfunded museums, about lax security, about million dollar paintings hanging in busy hotel lobbies…That’s bound to have an impact.”

Nonetheless, most thieves are simply opportunists, said Detective Don Hrycyk of the Los Angeles Police Department’s art theft division. “Most of the street thugs we deal with will take whatever is inside a house—they don’t care if it is cash, cameras or bronze sculptures.” However, specialised art thieves are out there. Last month two Chinese Louhan sculptures, between 900 and 1,000 years old and worth $800,000 each, were stolen from Westport, Connecticut. “I was surprised. To see something like that taken gives you pause: it means someone knew what they were looking for,” said Wittman.

One noticeable feature of art crime is that the victim often knows the perpetrator, said Hrycyk. “With art crime, there are a greater number of suspects who have had an acquaintance with their victims, whether it’s a co-worker or the pool-man, there is an association through which they’ve come to know what [the victim] has. People who collect art can be very proud of what they have. Some give grand tours, and so whet appetites,” he added.

The good news is that looted art is difficult to off-load. Hrycyk’s two-man department has recovered $81m worth of art in the past 15 years, a better statistic than the 21 other theft squads in the LAPD. He said this is due to the nature of the material itself: “Art is ultimately one of the best types of property to recover. A thief is not going to try to change a work of art because that would destroy the value. Often a work can lay low for years before surfacing, but it will pop up years later—then we’re off and running.”

Wittman agrees: “Thieves may be good criminals, but they’re often terrible businessmen. Most are common criminals who will steal anything. In all other crime there is no problem in monetising the loot: if you steal drugs or jewellery, you get money. You can chop up a car and sell it for parts. You can’t shift a stolen Picasso,” he said.

One peculiarity of art theft, however, is that the crimes are not necessarily commercial. A cache of stolen art was discovered in a New Jersey apartment this July following the arrest of Mark Lugo, a former sommelier, for stealing Picasso’s pencil drawing, Tête de Femme, 1965, from San Francisco’s Weinstein gallery on 5 July. That arrest led police to Lugo’s apartment where they discovered a museum-quality collection of 11 works including a Leger sketch from the Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel and a Malick Sidibé photograph from New York’s Jack Shainman gallery. Lugo has been arrested on three felony counts: commercial burglary, grand theft of personal property and possession of stolen property, and is awaiting trial. “The way it sounds, he just likes art,” Sgt Sam Williams of the Hoboken Police Department told the media. “That’s a collector mentality,” said Wittman. “It’s nothing new—but it doesn’t happen with bank robbers.”

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