USA Today wants to know more about the motivations behind art theft, so they asked questions of a bunch of psychologists:
Q: When someone steals fine art, what could be the motivation?
A: There could be any number of motivations. This is a rare event and it’s even more rare to understand what’s going on. If you look back historically at other pieces of stolen art, the motivation is idiosyncratic. Look at the Mona Lisa’s theft — taken from The Louvre in Paris in 1911 by an Italian patriot. He resented that one of Italy’s greatest pieces of art was being displayed in France. So you get individual motivation there, or a political motivation.
And then there’s money….the theft of art has become much more linked to organized crime syndicates. The art can be resold, bartered behind closed doors. Sometimes it is more like a kidnapping in that way. It could be the thief’s retirement plan.
Or, another motivation: he may want it so he can enjoy it.
• Joel Silberberg, Director of the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at Northwestern University
Q: Why steal objects of this magnitude versus a petty theft where you could fence the filched items more easily?
A: It could have nothing to do with money. It could be an aggrieved person — something as mundane as that. Someone who thinks, “You fired me or didn’t promote me and I’m going to show you up, show how incompetent you are.”
Q: So could the thief be as sane as you and me?
A: Yes. What we’ve found in our research is that lots of people are willing to cheat, to be dishonest. We are talking about MIT, Yale, Duke, Harvard students — regular smart people who are likely to take on positions of leadership in society.
We have a flexible psychology. We find two types of people: the common type of cheater who does it only when they can rationalize it to themselves, and the non-common type who does it for cost-benefit analysis. The question then is, which type are these art thieves?
•Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, author of “The Upside of Irrationality” (Harper Collins, June 2010).