Although art theft has always existed, it has dramatically increased in the twentieth century.
It is not known exactly how much art is stolen but estimates now range into of billions of dollars' each year. Interpol maintains that art-related crime is exceeded only by drug trafficking, money laundering and illegal arms dealing.
Art theft is often amazingly simple. The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre when the gallery employee Vincenzo Peruggia hid in the broom closet overnight, removed the painting from the museum's walls, hid it under his coat and walked out the front door. In 1971, anonymous thieves smashed through a metal-bar protected window of the Kenwood House with a sledgehammer, snatched Vermeer's priceless Guitar Player from the wall, scaled a ten foot wall outside the museum grounds and fled undisturbed.
Only the minority of art-related crimes are reported and only the minority of stolen art is recovered—estimates range from a desultory 5 to 10%. Artworks stolen in a few minutes often take years recover.
About 98% of art crimes take place in Europe and the United States. A quarter of stolen art is taken from art institutions or museums, half from private individuals. Art works of minor importance find their way into a complex criminal underground and only after years are they "laundered" and can be resold through "legitimate" channels. Important works of art must be ransomed. It is nearly impossible to sell a stolen iconic art work for anywhere near its true value. Because it is so difficult to resell, important works of art are used as a form of currency among criminals. "As thieves see it, art-napping is kidnapping without all the fuss. Here is a victim who won't cry out or jump out the window and who just might bring a giant ransom."1 Moreover, if an art thief is caught, he will spend very little time in jail in respects to a convicted kidnapper. Once stolen, artwork is recovered either very quickly after the theft or decades later.
Gentlemen aesthetes who steal art as a sophisticated diversion or art-addicted burglars with an unquenchable passion for beauty are largely a Hollywood myth—real-world art thieves often use stolen works of art for collateral in international drug deals. Exceedingly few cases of rich, but unscrupulous art lovers who commission major art thefts have ever been reported. In one unusual case, the compulsive French art thief Stéphane Breitwieser admitted to authorities he had stolen more than 200 works from small museums across Europe, keeping most of them at his home purely for enjoyment. He was sentenced to 26 months but was arrested six years later when the police found 29 works of art in his apartment.
Art thieves rarely destroy their loot. "The vast majority of art thieves use their plunder as collateral instead, using the works as leverage to bargain down criminal charges. Throughout Europe, prosecutors are generally willing to lessen a criminal's sentence if he can offer a valuable piece of stolen art in exchange. (Such deals are rare in the U.S.) In Spain, gangs have even taken to stealing art as insurance, using the purloined pieces to reduce criminal sentences for unrelated charges like drug possession and car theft."2
The principal reason why artworks are targeted by criminal organizations is that they are easy to steal and many can be conserved indefinitely with little or no fuss. A painting worth ten of millions of dollars can be cut out of its fame rolled up and carried in a cardboard tube and carried away within minutes.
Because state-of-the-art security of the kind commonly employed by money-making enterprises like banks and jewelers is so expensive, individual collectors and art institutions have great difficulties of protecting their art as well as tracking and recovering it when it does get stolen. While most high-profile museums have extremely tight security, many places with multimillion art collections works have disproportionately poor security measures. Art theft has also had great economic impact on the finances of art institutions. To protect their traveling art works from theft, insurance may account for up to one-third of the budget for an exhibition.
Over the years, Interpol, the FBI and other police agencies have compiled comprehensive lists of stolen works and frequently e-mail art alerts. Online lists like the Art Loss Register or Trace Looted Art make cross-checking easier. The FBI has a dedicated Art Crime Team of 14 special agents, supported by three special trial attorneys for prosecutions. And it runs the National Stolen Art File, a computerized index of reported stolen art and cultural properties for the use of law enforcement agencies across the world.