Stolen Goods

rachelMovies and television shows like USA Network’s White Collar make stealing art and artifacts look glamorous and somewhat safe. Forger and art thief extraordinaire Neal Caffrey (played by Matt Bomer) is a charming FBI confidential informant full of knowledge about art, chemistry, and deception. Somehow he manages to help his handler Agent Burke while working his own angle and often getting the girl. As harmless as his character seems (to those who don’t own the pieces being pilfered), modern art criminals and their crimes are anything but. Today art crimes help fund terrorism, the drug and arms trade, and organized crime. Because hundreds of thousands of art related crimes occur every year grossing millions, it is considered by the US Department of Justice to be one of the top three types of criminal activity. Only the arms and drug trades bring in more gross profits. Interpol places these two trades as well as human trafficking above art crimes. Many countries do not have law enforcement divisions solely dedicated to solving art crimes; the FBI’s Art Crime Team was only founded in 2004. It is relatively small with fourteen special agents. According to the FBI website, “Since its inception, the Art Crime Team has recovered more than 2,650 items valued at over $150 million.” Keep in mind that art crimes have a small percentage of object recovery – sources report it may be as low as 2-10%.Imagine the millions of dollars in stolen art and artifacts out in the world today.

Although it seems that art crimes are worries only for museums or the richest of the rich, this is not so. The million dollar crimes are simply the ones that get the most media coverage. Several databases exist in order to assist law enforcement and owners of stolen art and antiques in recovering art and antiques. The FBI compiles a National Stolen Art File with submissions from other law enforcement agencies of stolen artifacts that are culturally significant and generally worth $2000 or more. According to Interpol’s website, it also has a Stolen Works of Art database including photos of over 40,000 items that is available for search by law enforcement and other authorized users. It is comforting to know that international law enforcement is working together to try and recover these losses as well as help minimize the funding of terrorism, arms, drugs, and human trafficking; however, private collectors and museums would rather prevent the theft to begin with. The Art Loss Register, a private company, may be the answer for those with large valuable collections. For a fee collections can be registered prior to loss by insurers or museums. ALR also does provenance research and works to find stolen items; their recovery fees are a percentage of fair market value of the item recovered. More information can be found at Websites such as are searchable by anyone with an internet connection; however, photos are not available for many of the entries.

The percentage of recovered stolen artifacts as well as the prosecution of those involved in art crimes remains low, but the FBI, Interpol, and other national and international law enforcement organizations are becoming more attuned and savvy to the significance of these crimes. Besides having proper insurance and security measures, the best thing that private collectors can do to protect their investments is to create and update their own databases using the internationally recognized Object ID checklist. It provides guidance for how to photograph pieces as well as questions to answer which will help provide positive identification if a theft occurs.

Sources for further reading

Protecting Cultural Heritage from Art Theft: International Challenge, Local Opportunity By Noah Charney, M.A., M.A., Paul Denton, M.B.A., M.S.C.J., and John Kleberg, M.Ed.

Art Crime Team

Object ID Checklist

Rachel Glenn is part owner of Rachel’s Attic Antiques and Collectibles in Dandridge, Tennessee and has been dealing in antiques and collectibles for twelve years and selling online for nine years.

Source: Rachel Glenn