On the Case

Volume 50, Issue 1 :: Shauna Lee Lange

Solving the theft of art (some of it sacred) around the globe

Caravaggio’s ‘Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence’

Caravaggio’s ‘Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence,’ was stolen in Palermo, Sicily, in 1969.

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) formed a rapid deployment Art Crime Team in 2004, partly as a result of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad’s looting problem. Coordinated through the FBI’s Art Theft Program and located in Washington, D.C., special agents and the U.S. Department of Justice enforcers investigate and prosecute art theft within assigned geographic regions. In addition to response teams, the FBI maintains a computerized index and record of reported stolen art and cultural property valued over $2,000, known as the National Stolen Art File (NSAF). People may file online reports at FBI Tips and Public Leads. And the FBI Art Theft News Page offers up-to-date notices and events.

It is estimated that art crime totals between $4 and 6 billion dollars every year, although exact numbers are difficult to find. Much of the stolen work ends up in the US market as art and cultural property. Here, the problem usually centers on residential burglaries for and from private collections. Thefts from houses of worship, museums, archaeological sites, and Native American burial grounds also occur. And although museums and places of worship are among common targets, they are high risk for would-be-thieves, even in countries with no organized art police.

According to Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the Art Theft Program’s manager, “There is specialized training involved for the Art Crime Team. We need to get them familiar with the periods of art, the vocabulary of art, art history, but more importantly with the business of art. Most often when we identify stolen art we identify it as it’s coming back into the marketplace.”

Cultural crimes include art thefts, art forgeries, archaeological thefts, and cultural property violations of which theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking stolen art across state and international lines are most common. However, critics of FBI recovery activities cite only a five percent success rate, where world recovery rates are only near ten percent. According to the FBI, Art Crime Team agents receive specialized training in art and culture property investigation and assist in art-related investigations worldwide in cooperation with foreign law enforcement officials and FBI legal attaché offices. Since its inception, the Art Crime Team has recovered nearly 15,000 times valued at more than $165 million.

Interestingly, at the close of last year, just three out of ten of the FBI’s top art crimes originated domestically (listed by date):

  1. Theft of Renoir Oil Painting, Houston, Texas, 2011
  2. Theft from Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 2007
  3. Theft from the Museu Chacara Do Céu, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, 2006
  4. Iraqi Looted and Stolen Artifacts, Iraq, 2003 (recovered)
  5. Theft of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Murals, West Hollywood, California, 2002
  6. Van Gogh Museum Robbery, Amsterdam, Holland, 2002 (recovered)
  7. Theft of Cezanne’s “View of Auvers-sur-Oise,” Oxford, England, 1999
  8. Theft of the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius, New York, New York, 1995 (recovered)
  9. Theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts, 1990
  10. Theft of Caravaggio’s “Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence,” Palermo, Sicily, 1969

When any US art crime involves international regions, the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducts its expanded mission for Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations. The U.S. Department of State Cultural Heritage Office protects and preserves ancient and historic monuments, objects, and archaeological sites. Internationally, INTERPOL’s Database of Stolen Works of Art is the go-to resource since 1947, and the United Nations has global databases for national cultural heritage laws, sharing electronic resources and laws on crime, conventions for cultural property protection, and organizations for drugs and crime.

Art crimes and illicit trafficking of cultural property lead the news in emergency actions in Syria and Iraq for man-made disasters, and in Haiti and Italy for naturally occurring ones. Looting of art and cultural property during war and conflict continues to be a significant international problem. Art crime expands and strengthens in spite of difficulties in liquidating works, hiding works for unknown futures, or challenges with underground offerings.

Certain regions, including Europe, Latin America, Middle East, North and Sub-Saharan Africa, and South East Asia are particularly victim to art crime, likely due to the ease of undetected cross-border travel and the lack of integrated international statistics and sophisticated recovery efforts. Types of preferred stolen objects vary from country to country. Paintings, sculptures, statues, and religious items are highly sought. Archaeological pieces, antiquarian books, antique furniture, coins, weapons and firearms, or ancient gold and silverware are also coveted. Worldwide, the most prevailing type of art crime is counterfeit and fraudulent works resulting from technological advancements.

In June 2017, the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) will hold its 8th Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference in Amelia, Italy. ARCA is a research and outreach organization working to promote the study and research of art crime and cultural heritage protection. The conference serves as a forum to explore the role of detection, crime prevention, and criminal justice responses to combat all forms of art crime and illicit trafficking in cultural property at both the international and domestic levels.


  • Art Claim: Art Recovery International stolen art registry (artclaim.com).
  • Art Loss Register:  London-based registry of lost or stolen artworks and owned possessions containing over 200,000 records (artloss.com/en).
  • The Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property 1933-1945:  Lootedart.com registry includes two databases: (1) the Object Database of over 25,000 missing assets; and (2) the Information Database, that contains laws, policies, reports, archival records, and more from over 49 countries.
  • Chasing Aphrodite:  By the authors of “Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum,” this blog reports on various incidents of art theft, fraud, and looting (chasingaphrodite.com).
  • The Documentation Project:  The Project for the Documentation of Wartime Cultural Losses provides information on art and cultural property displaced during wartime with a focus on World War II (docproj.loyola.edu).
  • Georgetown Law Library: Small microfilm collection (Art Looting and Nazi Germany) of administrative documents related to the recovery of art and other cultural objects during and after World War II.
  • Holocaust-Era Assets (NARA):  The US National Archives and Records Administration Holocaust-Era Assets (archives.gov/research/holocaust).
  • Illicit Cultural Property:  This blog provides regular updates on thefts, antiquities looting, and legal developments in the field (illicitculturalproperty.com).
  • International Council of Museums: Lists of objects particularly susceptible to theft and looting are known as ICOM Red Lists for various locations (icom.museum).
  • Museum Security Network: Covers news about art thefts, recoveries, and other news related to art crime (museum-security.org/).
  • Object ID: The international standard for describing cultural objects in order to facilitate their identification (Interpol.int/crime-areas/works-of-art/object-id).
  • Stolen Art Alert – IFAR Journal: Each issue of the IFAR Journal includes a Stolen Art Alert.  Published since 1977, the alert contains information on thefts reported by owners and insurance companies to the Art Loss Register, police, the FBI, Interpol, and other organizations (ifar.org/publications-stolen-art-alert.php).

The author is the founder of The Art Evangelist (theartevangelist.com), a full-service liturgical art advisory specializing in art integration for sacred spaces and public places.

Speak Your Mind