The Art Newspaper reports that art thefts are on the rise across North America. Over the past decade, the paper says, international art theft has risen in value from $3 to $6 billion dollars. More on that number in a bit.
My position holds that art theft is actually rare. Opportunities are far more abundant than occurrences of theft. In the US, every twenty-four seconds a car is stolen despite locks, alarms, garages and other security measures. This is because thieves can convert cars into cash. They are stripped for parts which are resold on secondary markets.
Art security is notoriously lax. Valuable items hang on publicly accessible walls. Mark Lugo, an exception rather than the rule, simply pulled works from hotel and gallery walls. But Lugo didn’t try to profit from his ill-gotten gains. He was building a private collection. Since he didn’t steal for profit, Lugo didn’t face a deterrent that stops other thieves. It’s hard to profit from stolen art.
Toyota, GM and Volkswagen each sell over seven million cars a year. That makes it difficult to locate an individual vehicle. And if you consider that vehicle has value even when its chopped into pieces, then you understand why car theft is prevalent – it’s practitioners feel they can make money.
In the art world, great value is contained in fewer items. Print runs might number from a few dozen to a couple hundred. Paintings are literally one-of-a-kind items. It is difficult to move stolen merchandise without attracting attention from police and theft victims. As the Art Newspaper notes, the LAPD’s two man art theft department was able recover more stolen merchandise than any of the twenty-one other departments.
Now about that six billion dollar theft number. The FBI includes fakes and forgeries in the crime of art theft. Given that context I can believe that “theft” is on the rise. Art forgery is as old as the art market. Online auctions are crawling with fakes and this market has greatly expanded over the last decade. The Art Newspaper should have more correctly said, “Art crimes rise across North America.”