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.
Three paintings behind a rope at a museum. ©

When someone thinks of art crime, a Hollywood image is conjured, one of black-clad cat burglars and thieves in top hats and white gloves. But, the truth behind art crime, one misunderstood by the general public and professionals alike, is far more sinister and intriguing. Art crime has its share of cinematic thefts and larger-than-life characters, but it also is the realm of international organized crime syndicates, the involvement of which results in art crime funding all manner of other serious offenses, including those pertaining to the drug trade and terrorism. Art crime has shifted from a relatively innocuous, ideological crime into a major international plague.

Over the last 50 years, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has ranked art crime behind only drugs and arms in terms of highest-grossing criminal trades.1 There are hundreds of thousands of art crimes reported per year, but, despite this fact, the general public only hears about the handful of big-name museum heists that make international headlines. In Italy alone there are 20,000 to 30,000 thefts reported annually, and many more go unreported.2 In fact, even though reported art crime ranks third in the list of criminal trades, many more such incidents go unreported worldwide, rather than coming to the attention of authorities, making its true scale much broader and more difficult to estimate. 

Fundamentalist terrorist groups rely on looted antiquities as a major funding source. Mohammed Atta tried to sell looted antiquities in 1999 as a funding source for the 9/11 attacks.3 In regions, such as Afghanistan, local farmers dig up treasure troves beneath the soil and sell them to local criminal or government organizations for a tiny fraction of their actual value. The antiquities then are smuggled abroad, given a false provenance, and sold, often on an open market to unsuspecting museums and collectors who never would imagine that their purchase might indirectly fund the Taliban.4 One of the most important ways to get the general public and governments alike to take art crime as seriously as it warrants is to highlight the ways in which this seemingly innocuous category of crime not only depletes and damages the world’s art and its understanding of it but also fuels the arms trade, drug trafficking, and terrorist activity.5

Noah Charney
Mr. Charney, a professor of art history at The American University of Rome, founded the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, a nonprofit research group. 
Chief Paul Denton
Chief Denton heads The Ohio State University Police Division in Columbus and is a retired commander with the Columbus Division of Police.
John Kleberg
Mr. Kleberg retired as assistant vice president of The Ohio State University in Columbus and now consults on higher education safety and security, including fine art.

Before World War II, most art theft adhered to the cliché of dramatic museum heists carried out by skillful cat burglars, which has been perpetuated by fiction and the media. But, the reality proves far more menacing as the recent rash of “blitz” thefts indicates. From the Munch Museum to the Bührle Collection to the Stockholm Museum, the latest trend in art theft is for armed, masked thieves to burst into museums, wave their guns around, grab objects near the exit, and run off. They set off alarms, but because police response time to alarms may be three to five minutes, the thieves depart in under two minutes and avoid any chance of capture.

Since 1960, television media began reporting and glorifying both art crime and the exorbitant prices for which art sells at auction. Around the same time, organized crime groups took over art crime to a great extent, turning what once essentially was an individual, often ideological crime category into a major international plague that funds organized crime’s other enterprises.6

Forgery and crimes of deception remain within the realm of individual con men and skillful artists. While no criminal profile exists for art thieves, who tend to be mercenary criminals with no experience or knowledge of the art world, forgers fit a specific profile, and their modus operandi (MO) can be mapped in a way that if studied by the art trade might prevent future crimes.

Much of the mechanics of art crime—precisely how and for what purpose it is committed—remain mysterious to the general public and police alike. The reasons for this are complex and fascinating. They require an understanding not only of organized crime but of the exclusive and often underhanded machinations of the international art community. The art trade has been, at times, shady and unscrupulous, with closed doors and lips, gentlemanly vows of silence, and blind eyes. What other multimillion dollar market so rarely leaves a paper trail of transactions, regularly hides commodities to avoid luxury tax, and relies so heavily on the unscientific assurance of connoisseurs to determine authenticity and value, with fortunes in the balance? Few police understand the art world, and few members of the art community work as police officers.

Art Police Around the World

Most countries have no dedicated art police, indicating that their government administrations may not consider art crime of sufficient severity to warrant a department of its own, despite numerous publications to the contrary. The reason for this is the relative paucity of sufficiently extensive empirical data and statistics on art crime—the result of a cyclical, self-destructive pattern. The empirical data are sparse. Governments do not dedicate resources to gathering and analyzing data on art crime because the existing data have not proven the extent and severity of the problem.7

For this reason, it is useful to consider some of the more successful art squads as a point of reference for other countries and for future action. Some law enforcement bodies recently have established art squads, such as those in Canada and the Netherlands. The FBI formed its art squad in 2004. Scotland Yard established its Arts and Antiques Unit in 1969, disbanded it, and then reestablished it in 1989. Spain and France have extensive art squads, the prior of which uses YouTube to promote the recovery of stolen items. Italy’s Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage stands as the oldest and largest of the world’s art squads.

The recovery rate for stolen art remains particularly low, in some cases as low as 2 to 6 percent. It is even rarer to both recover stolen art and successfully prosecute. Because the greatest amount of data and subsequent analysis come from solved cases, ideally involving both the recovery of stolen goods and successful prosecution of the criminals, it becomes understandable that limited data are available on art crime.8

INTERPOL’s Stolen Works of Art Department acts as an information-gathering point for world art police, keeping track of reported crimes and stolen objects in a database and functioning as a point of reference. Interpol publishes annual data as reported by constituent countries, but admits that the data from each country are incomplete and reports only a fraction of the total art crime activity. Even so, INTERPOL ranks art crime as the fourth-highest-grossing criminal trade behind only drugs, arms, and human trafficking.9 All such rankings are based on best estimates and should be taken merely as an indication of the severity of the crime category. That DOJ also highlights art crime as having become enveloped in the operations of organized crime, therefore funding more sinister activities, should underscore the need to support police efforts to curb this type of crime.10

FBI Art Crime Team

Founded in 2004, the FBI’s Art Crime Team features several dedicated agents supported by special trial attorneys for prosecutions. The team also maintains the National Stolen Art File (NSAF), a computerized index of reported stolen art for use by law enforcement agencies around the world.11 The Art Crime Team has recovered over 2,600 items valued at approximately $142 million.12 Such statistics must be understood in context, however. The cited values for art are based on the estimated open market value—that which art with legitimate pedigree may sell for at auction. Estimates of the black market value of stolen art based on the amount that undercover agents were asked to pay during sting operations is 7 to 10 percent of its perceived open market value.13 The FBI has had remarkable success in this capacity despite the fact that a relatively small number of art thefts occur in the United States. Rather, the U.S. serves as a preferred venue to sell stolen art. For this reason, the FBI has helped other countries recover their stolen art and has participated in numerous undercover operations in collaboration with foreign police forces. 

Chained altar pieces demonstrate the threat of theft in houses of worship.
Chained altar pieces demonstrate the threat of theft in houses of worship.

Scotland Yard Arts and Antiques Unit

After it was founded in 1969 as a philatelic squad (investigating stamp thieves) and later disbanded, Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Unit was restructured in 1989. The unit has seen remarkable success as museum theft in London has gone down by more than 60 percent in recent years, with an average annual recovery of £7 million ($11.3 million) worth of stolen art.14 This follows on the unit’s primary engagement with breaking up art forgery and con artist rings. The unit also runs the London Stolen Art Database (LSAD), which includes over 50,000 objects. However, Scotland Yard’s jurisdiction only covers London, and the numerous art thefts outside of the city are investigated by local police with no special training in art crime.15

In 2007, the unit’s funding was cut in half, forcing it to seek private funds to fill out its £300,000 ($487,000) budget.16 This demonstrates a lack of understanding of the importance and efficacy of the unit, particularly when an estimated £200 million ($321 million) worth of stolen art comes through the British market each year.17 To counter this lack of funds, the unit developed clever new policies, such as ArtBeat, a program in which art world specialists work as special constables for several days each month assisting police officers with ongoing investigations.

Italy’s Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage

Italy’s military police, the Carabinieri, established the Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, or TPC) in 1969. The Carabinieri TPC is the world’s first dedicated art squad, established after the infamous theft by Cosa Nostra of Caravaggio’s Nativity from the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo. It has served, by far, as the largest and most successful art squad in the world, with over 300 full-time agents. However, Italy also reports more stolen art each year (between 20,000 to 30,000 objects) than any other country (runners-up include Russia and Bulgaria, which report fewer than 7,000 objects stolen annually).18 The Carabinieri TPC has been active in Iraq and Afghanistan and is sufficiently large and well-funded to undertake policing at-risk archaeological sites, both on land and at sea.

Dutch Art Crime Team

Founded around 2006, the Netherland’s Art Crime Team, Korps landelijke politiediensten (KLPD), represents one of the new faces on the international art policing scene. Consisting of only a few agents, including the only one in the Netherlands with experience and expertise in investigating art crime, it has developed a national database on stolen art. The team was founded when it became clear that art crime extends into the higher levels of organized crime. Thus, art crime was deemed an issue of national importance.19

Local Opportunity

While major and newsworthy crimes associated with great works of art intrigue the media, as well as museums and galleries, an important domestic dimension to the problem also exists. Most instances of theft reported to local U.S. law enforcement agencies occur on a much smaller scale. Thus, the importance of the crime often remains underappreciated, despite remaining worthy of local attention. Surely, assaults, robberies of financial institutions, or crimes directed against individuals are critical, but it also is important not to lose sight of the significance of crimes directed against cultural property.

Early American artifacts, antique firearms, historic documents, library collections, or items of local history, as well as public art and works of less well known artists, represent the history and culture of a local community. Thefts of such items for personal collections or conversion to cash have a local, if not national, impact.20

Works by noted artists—for example, Thomas Moran—have substantial financial and historic significance.
Works by noted artists—for example, Thomas Moran—have substantial financial and historic significance.

Recognizing this reality and the opportunity for local law enforcement cooperation, The Ohio State University Department of Public Safety (OSUDPS) and the Columbus, Ohio, Division of Police (CPD) began a joint initiative in 1997 to present programs about crimes against cultural property to members of local security organizations and neighborhood and business communities. Works of art and historic artifacts were identified in public buildings, corporate boardrooms, libraries, religious centers, and other places not previously of interest to law enforcement. Program attendees mentioned that collectibles in homes and works by local artists recognized nationally had a significant dollar value. The program successfully raised awareness. Inventories, documentation of collections, photographic records, and security devices were implemented to ensure that these items would remain available for future generations.

The number of undocumented valuable works identified on college campuses continues to be amazing. Works by famous artists valued in hundreds of thousands of dollars continue to be identified, recorded, and protected.21 While collections in rare book libraries, art galleries, and museums generally are well-known, other art and cultural property often is found in unsuspecting places in the community.

Local Impact

What does cultural property loss look like at the local level in the United States, and how do police officers or deputies working at the city, county, or state level view and understand it? Except for those in major cities on the East and West Coasts, most law enforcement agencies do not have a dedicated art theft investigator. A uniformed patrol officer usually responds first and conducts the initial investigation. More commonly, reports are made on the loss of coin collections, antiques, sports memorabilia, or irreplaceable musical instruments, rather than on paintings or sculptures. A recent trend involves unwitting thieves taking public art pieces solely for the value of the scrap metal, not for their artistic or cultural worth.

The original program partnership between OSUDPS and CPD brought these issues to the working level for patrol officers and detectives. By digging through case files, the local impact became clear. The following cases provide some obvious and interesting examples.

In a crime bulletin issued by CPD’s Crime Analysis Unit, agencies in the area learned of the MO of a burglar targeting antique malls. The suspect hid in the building after closing hours, then forced entry into display cases. This individual seemed selective with specific likes. The list of stolen items included a carte de visite (card of visit) depicting a small photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s casket at the Ohio State House and bearing the name of a Circleville, Ohio, photographer on the back. Also taken were two OSU vs. Michigan tickets from the 1920s and three OSU football team photo postcard sets from the early 1900s.22

The OSUDPS/CPD cultural property awareness program recognized crime analysts as a critical link in agencies where these positions exist. One analyst who attended the training program also happened to play music professionally. With the cultural property training, analytical expertise, and a special interest in music, the reported theft of a trumpet from a hotel luggage storage area caught his attention. No one witnessed the incident, and no physical evidence (this occurred before widespread application of video monitoring systems) existed, so solving the crime proved challenging. Reports of this type typically would be filed with little or no investigative follow-up in many agencies. However, the analyst recognized the victim as a renowned trumpeter and jazz pioneer. The instrument certainly was irreplaceable to the victim and, in the estimation of some, priceless. The value bestowed on the stolen trumpet as an item of cultural interest made the report and investigation a higher priority. Added work by a crime analyst led to a successful recovery.23

A local art gallery specializing in glass sculptures reported to the CPD the shoplifting theft of a work described in the offense report as similar to a glass ball or egg and valued at $1,200. With video evidence and a suspect description, a detective investigated the incident. The detective began checking pawn shops for possible leads on fencing sources. A cooperative pawn shop owner admitted to recently accepting a unique piece of art glass but instead of placing the item for sale held it off the books for his own personal collection. On inspection, the art piece differed from the one reported stolen. Going back to the gallery to try and reconcile the report, gallery personnel revealed to the detective that they lost another, more expensive, piece—a glass sculpture valued at over $40,000. The gallery owner explained that he did not want the theft publicized. More likely, the dealer intended to pursue his own efforts to recover the missing piece without involving local law enforcement. Reluctance also may have resulted from insurance issues because this was the third theft from the gallery in less than 12 months.24 One observation since the OSUDPS/CPD program was conducted in 1997 is that without top-down understanding of cultural property protection issues, art theft will not become a priority at the local level unless a significant loss occurs in the community.


Until local law enforcement gives more special attention to cultural property crime, hopefully, a member of each department will find it as a challenge of interest. Joint initiatives with universities, museums, law enforcement agencies, and experts in the local art community will help ensure that America’s cultural heritage will continue. The theft of important international or local works of art and religious artifacts damages the nation’s knowledge and appreciation of its cultural heritage. While largely an international challenge, there remains a local opportunity for law enforcement to help protect America’s heritage.


U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol, Cultural Property Crimes Program, (accessed June 8, 2011).

This information was culled from the Carabinieri’s self-published annual yearbook for internal distribution and the media, in addition to numerous interviews with Colonel Giovanni Pastore and Colonel Luigi Cortellessa, the former and current vice commandants of the art squad, respectively.

“Kunst als Terrorfinanzierung,” Der Spiegel, July 18, 2005, (accessed July 11, 2011).

Blood Antiques, Journeyman Pictures, 2009.

U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol, Cultural Property Crimes Program.

Noah Charney, “Art Crime in Context,” in Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009).

Charney, “Art Crime in Context.”

Jumana Farouky, “Spirited Away: Art Thieves Target Europe’s Churches,” Time, January 10, 2008,,8599,1702155,00.html (accessed July 11, 2011).

INTERPOL, Works of Art: Frequently Asked Questions, (accessed July 11, 2011).

10 U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol, Cultural Property Crimes Program.

11 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Stolen Art File, (accessed July 12, 2011).

12 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Art Crime Team, (accessed July 12, 2011).

13 Mark Durney, “Ransoms Revisited: The Mocking Madonna,” Art Theft Central, entry posted March 1, 2010, (accessed July 26, 2011).

14 Venice in Peril, “2nd Exclusive Art Crime Lecture in Aid of Venice in Peril,” (accessed July 12, 2011).

15 Vernon Rapley, former head of Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Unit, interview by author, November 1, 2009.

16 Sandra Laville, “Met’s Art Theft Squad Has to Go Cap in Hand,” The Guardian, April 21, 2007, (accessed July 12, 2011).

17 Derek Fincham, “Scotland Yard Halves Art and Antique Squad Funding,” Illicit Cultural Property, entry posted April 23, 2007, (accessed July 26, 2011).

18 The Carabinieri annual yearbook.

19 Martin Finkelnberg, interview by author, first published in The Journal of Art Crime (ARCA, Fall 2010).

20 Christopher Reed, “Picking Harvard’s Pocket,” Harvard Magazine, May-June 2000.

21 The Ohio State University Department of Public Safety, Reducing the Risk, (accessed July 26, 2011).

22 Based on Columbus Police Division investigations.

23 Bill Mayr, “Thieves Hit A Sour Note with Musician,” The Columbus Dispatch, July 31, 2001.

24 Based on Columbus Police Division investigations. 












“Much of the mechanics of art crime…remain mysterious to the general public and police alike.”