Theft is one of the most basic crimes that has been prosecuted by modern legal systems. Societies around the world recognize that it is wrong to take something which does not belong to you. One of the most lucrative theft crimes, even throughout history, has been that of art theft, and after drugs and guns, is one of the largest criminal enterprises around the world.
Recently, however, an innocent bystander become involved in suspected art theft: The Metropolitan Museum of Art was required to bring an ancient vase to the Manhattan DA’s office last week after being served with a warrant which alleged reasonable cause to believe the vase was actually stolen – meaning the museum was in possession of stolen property. The vase is actually an ancient mixing bowl used to dilute wine with water, and dates back to 350 B.C. An archaeologist first brought the shady origins of the vase to the authorities’ attention when he found that the vase had not been previously traded before 1989. On top of that, photos in possession of someone who had been convicted of illegal art trading matched that of the vase. There is suspicion that the looters illegally excavated the object from a gravesite in the early 1970s in southern Italy. If it is stolen, the Met will likely return the object to Italy – but what about finding who is responsible for its theft?
The FBI actually has a special team of 16 agents which run investigations concerning art theft and crimes, including the National Stolen Art File, which is a digital report of stolen art that law enforcement agencies around the world can utilize. Since it began, the Art Crime team of the FBI has intercepted over 14,850 items totaling over $165 million. There are multiple federal laws which make it a crime to intercept or transport stolen property, whether interstate or foreign commerce, across state lines or over national borders, including actual theft or fraud of any item which comes from a museum.
However, what makes the art trade so difficult to investigate is that it is the largest lawful, but unregulated, business in the world. Buying art worth millions of dollars is possible without so much as a receipt. There is thus, no paper trail, and the only chain of title is called ‘provenance,’ which is usually done by guesswork. While difficult to know for certain, private art sales amount to an estimated $30 billion, with stolen goods estimated to be around $6-8 million of that figure. When law enforcement is able to nail criminals, then many believe that the crimes are not taken seriously enough. For example, Wolfgang Beltracchi was one of the most prevalent forgers, earning millions of dollars and fooling some of the best experts and museums. When he was eventually caught, he was sentenced to six years of prison, with the ability to go home during the day, despite selling fake paintings for millions of dollars. With these circumstances, it is easy to see why criminal organizations are turning more frequently to the illegal art trade – high pay off with low risk is a tempting combination. Until the law becomes more strict, it seems the art trade will be home to fakes, frauds and criminals.