Friday, October 12, 2012

Art Theft: The Unseen Masterpiece

Sometime between September 12 and September 14, 2012, burglars broke into the Santa Monica home of wealthy bond expert, Jeffrey Gundlach.  While the exact target of the burglars remains unknown, they surely recognized the monetary value of Mr. Gundlach’s vast collection of expensive artwork from famous artists such as Joseph Cornell, Piet Mondrian, Guy Rose, and Philip Guston.  Sparing little, the burglars fled with roughly $10 million of Mr. Gundlach’s possessions including thirteen paintings, a multitude of expensive watches, and bottles of fine wine.  In an ending seemingly scripted for Hollywood, the burglars piled into Mr. Gundlach’s red Porsche Carrera 4S and drove away into the night, but only after remembering to close the garage door on the way out.

Enthralling tales of art theft captivate American society.  Whether Harrison Ford is battling crooks to recover stolen artifacts in Indiana Jones; or Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta-Jones are snatching Rembrandts and ancient Chinese masks in Entrapment; or Matt Damon, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts team up to swindle the Imperial Coronation Egg in Ocean’s 12; one thing is certain, art thieves are rich, sexy, and smart.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the art thief as portrayed by Hollywood, lives primarily on the big screen and not in reality.  However, that is not to say that art theft is not a real problem.  The Department of Justice estimates the art crime industry to be worth roughly $6 billion a year, only surpassed by drug trafficking and the arms trade as the most profitable criminal trades over the last fifty years.

With such a large economic impact, it would be reasonable to infer that art crime garners a substantial amount of attention by law enforcement and the American public alike.  Unfortunately, such an inference would be inaccurate.  Art crime attracts little study from criminologists and underwhelming funding from government agencies.  The FBI’s Art Crime Team is composed of fourteen dedicated agents and three attorneys.  Only a few police departments such as Los Angeles and New York have special art crime teams, and according to the FBI, most countries do not have dedicated art crime police forces.  

Nevertheless, Congress has established a body of law to combat art crime.  The passage of the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA) criminalized the trafficking of stolen goods worth over $5,000.  In 1983, Congress passed the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) to stem the flow of black market artifactsinto the United States by imposing strict limitations on art likely obtained illegally.  The CPIA also established the Cultural Property Advisory Committee within the U.S. State Department to advise the president on issues involving cultural property.  More recently in United States v. Shultz, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit delivered a blow to corrupt art dealers by holding that NSPA extends not only cultural property stolen from private individuals, but to property stolen from foreign governments as well.  But while the law may be recognizing the significance of combating art crime, the public seems to be lagging behind.

It is likely that the public views art crime as just another property crime.  It is easy to devalue the cultural significance of stolen artwork that only indulges the private eyes of the wealthiest members of society, such as Mr. Gundlach.  However, theft from private collections is only a part of the larger problem.  Antiques are routinely looted from archeological sites and then sold on the black marketBut crimes against ancient, buried artifacts rarely generate the headlines necessary to make the public aware of the problem.

Furthermore, it is easy to view art theft as a victimless crime.  Paintings do not shoot bullets, explode, or have adverse health effects like drugs and arms.  After all, Brad Pitt and George Clooney steal for revenge or excitement, and Sean Connery merely wants some additions to his private collection.  Such a view of art theft does not, however, delve deep enough into the world of art crime.  Underneath the Hollywood veil, there is a world of international organized crime with ties to funding all types of illicit activities from drug trafficking, to the arms trade, to possibly terrorism.

It has been alleged that hijacker, Mohammad Atta, tried to sell looted Afghani artifacts in Germany to obtain funding for the 9/11 attacksThe International Council of Museums recently reported that it plans to produce a list of valuable ancient artifacts located in Syria.  It then plans to distribute the list to police agencies around the world in hopes of stemming the international trade of looted artifacts for gunsStill, not all art theft is linked to organized crime and the funding of violent activities; the extent of such connection is unknown.  Nevertheless, one must only dust off the history books to see that it is by no means a new phenomenon.

Perhaps what Hollywood fails to establish, and what the general public might not realize, is that art theft is a crime against world cultures.  Unfortunately, art crime results in far more than monetary loss; it is often an unrecognized loss for history.

Jared Engelking
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

1 comment:

  1. Really great article! This is absolutely an area of theft and crime that I had previously never given much mind to, but in actuality, it’s a problem and is really a loss for everyone. Like you said, an unrecognized loss for history… brilliantly phrased. Thanks for posting!