Newsweek has had a story about art theft out for about a week that was recently updated. The editors didn’t choose to clarify this mis-leading characterization of art theft as the third “highest grossing criminal trade.” That’s just plain nonsense.
Art theft might cause monetary damage or loss at a level that puts it nominally behind selling drugs and weapons but no one who steals art is “grossing” or even netting value anywhere near the $6-8bn a year level. That’s because most art crime is a crime of opportunity where the thieves soon discover it is hard to sell a work of stolen art for anywhere near its value.
Think of it this way, bronze statues have recently been stolen from public spaces and sold for scrap metal. The work of art might have a high nominal value but the thieves are not receiving any money that is commensurate with the damage they’re causing. Nor did whomever stole Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (above) from the Gardner museum.
With that in mind, read this from Newsweek:
If it seems hard to imagine that art crime is, according to the US Department of Justice and Unesco, the third highest-grossing criminal trade over the past 40 years (just behind drugs and weapons) […] The amount of criminal income generated by art crime each year is thought to be $6-8 billion, according to the FBI. In the UK, the value of art and antiques stolen each year is around £300m, second only to drug dealing and more costly than the theft of stolen vehicles. These figures are woefully inaccurate simply because we can’t possibly know about every single illegal trade that takes place, with some stolen, looted or forged pieces being sold multiple times. Worldwide, some 50,000-100,000 works of art are stolen each year. Not surprisingly only about 10% of stolen art is recovered, and successful prosecution occurs even less frequently.