Art Theft: FBI's Top Ten Art Crimes

Art Theft: FBI's Top Ten Art Crimes

Art looters have been around for centuries and their heists have gone unsolved 90 percent of the time.

The History Blog

Art has no monetary value that could amount to the uniqueness and story behind every piece. However, the astounding value that art dealers and galleries assign to certain pieces oftentimes leads some to develop an immense craving for this art, whether it is for the piece itself, or the money one could earn from selling it. This high price tag attracts thieves that hope to capitalize on the theft of these pieces. Just like jewelry thieves find a way to rob jewelry stores, art thieves find a way to rob art galleries and museums. Over the past century, art looters have notoriously made a name for themselves and found their crimes on the FBI's list of Top Ten Art Crimes.

The most expensive painting ever sold was created by the French Post-Impressionist artist, Paul Gauguin. Gaugin's piece, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry Me?) was sold in February 2015 to an undisclosed buyer for $300 million. Similar price tags make well-know art the target of art looters. It is estimated that art looters have created billions of dollars in deficits each year. This problem has grown so much in the past century that the FBI created a list announcing the "Top Ten Art Crimes." This list, comprised of some of the most well known pieces ever stolen, has remained a subject of discussion since its publishing. Along with this list, the FBI established an Art Crime Team in 2004. Although one might be surprised that the FBI created a unit for the investigation of art crimes, this team is made up of 16 special agents, in which each is devoted to addressing art crimes within a specific geographic region. These agents go through special training in art and cultural property investigation as they learn not only how to address these thefts, but also how to cooperate with foreign law enforcement officials. Since its creation, the FBI Art Crime Team has recovered over 14,850 pieces, valued at over $165 million.

The oldest unsolved art crime on the FBI's list of Top Ten Art Crimes includes the theft of Caravaggio's Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco. This piece by Caravaggio, a controversial Italian artist and felon who was influenced by the Baroque style and later went on to create his own style known as Caravagism, was stolen in October 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy. The two thieves removed the painting, valued at $20 million, and left the frame as evidence of their heist. Dubbed as the "crime of the century," the theft has gone unsolved for almost 47 years. One might be inclined to wonder, what really happens to these pieces once they are stolen?

As each year passes, the chances of recovering stolen pieces such as Caravaggio's Nativity continue to decrease. According to Giovanni Pastore, who worked for the Italian military police art squad, not much is known about what happened to the painting after it was cut from its frame. He says, "I can also tell you that the painting never left Italy, because there were no rumours at the international level. But as for the rest – whether it was destroyed or is still around, etc – there is no evidence, only rumors.” These stolen paintings seem to vanish into thin air. Gone without a trace, stolen art pieces are the subjects of intense speculation. Turbo Paul Hendry, a former art thief, describes how lucrative this business is for art looters. In the case of multi-million dollar works, Hendry says art thieves make “pennies on the dollar.” Still, he says, “if a $10 million painting sells for $100,000, that’s still pretty good for just a night’s work.”

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