Art-theft, often displayed in popular culture as a glamorous, murky underworld of wheelers-and-dealers and high-end buyers, shows no signs of slowing down. In the United Kingdom alone, artwork stolen comes to a value of $482 million per year. Art crime happens every day – whether a thief lifts a painting from a gallery in Moscow straight off the wall, or a ‘lost Michelangelo’ is stolen from a Belgian church without a trace. Both, to prove my point, happened within the last month. Art theft is the third most profitable criminal enterprise in the world, third only to drugs and arms dealing. London in particular finds itself in the spotlight, due to its position as a centre for the art world and the global art market generally: it holds a 21% share of the $56 billion global art market.
“A criminal will find it hard to carry around $1 million in pure cash; a painting can be rolled up and carried around in a backpack.”
Despite this, the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit holds only a handful of detectives, and between 2016 and 2017 went without a lead officer. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, the unit was disbanded temporarily and its officers were redirected to help with the ensuing enquiry. This had happened before, with a temporary close following the July 2005 bombings, and with recent high-profile budgetary pressures, some worried the department would be closed down indefinitely.
Even the most zealous supporters of the art crime squad are sympathetic to the fact that knife crime takes priority, but it’s important to view stolen art in the context of its use as a currency which funds arms, drugs and terrorism – economically and culturally. A criminal will find it hard to carry around $1 million in pure cash; a painting can be rolled up and carried around in a backpack. Art thieves, equally, have now adapted to the modern age. In the summer of 2017, hackers stole sums of up to one million from nine different galleries and individuals via an email scam. This market is one which is notoriously unregulated – art dealers and clients will exchange millions after a single conversation – and criminals are quick to take advantage.
“Art crime is often tolerated by stretched law enforcement agencies because it can be considered a victimless crime, but arguably, we are all cultural victims.”
Art is not, of course, only an economic commodity. Its political and cultural value is happily exploited by different groups, both legally and illegally. Only last week, Banksy’s tribute piece to the victims of the 2015 terror attack at the Bataclan music hall in Paris was stolen. It had been painted onto one of the emergency doors of the venue, and subsequently cut out and then removed. This theft encompasses the cultural damage art theft can do; but also highlights the wider debate of who owns art.
When art is stolen, it is not just its monetary value which disappears, it is seized from all those who had access to it. In regards to publicly owned or displayed art, the effect is intensified. In the case of the Bataclan music hall, the piece of art is inherently tied into a shared cultural memory and understanding of tragedy. Art crime is often tolerated by stretched law enforcement agencies because it can be considered a victimless crime, but arguably, we are all cultural victims. Equally, the swathes of rich archaeological heritage which has been stolen and destroyed at the hands of Daesh will never all be recovered. The question which is now emerging is how we can stay ahead of highly sophisticated art heists, and how we can protect art when policing is facing a chronic lack of funding and shortage of staff with enough knowledge and experience to make an impact.
Image credit: Duncan Hull