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Reports of stolen art have more than tripled in the past 20 years

Media Release

05 September 1999

The international market for stolen art is estimated to have a turnover of $US500 million to $US1 billion.

Art theft is one of the subjects that will be covered at a major conference to be held in Sydney later this year.

The conference, being organised by the Australian Institute of Criminology, will focus on all aspects of art crime - fakes and forgeries, money laundering, detection techniques, prevention strategies and theft.

The Director of the Institute, Dr Adam Graycar, says figures indicate that stolen art is the third biggest international illegal trade, behind drugs and arms.

"Although the scale of art theft is not as big in Australia as it is overseas, the illegal market is global in its operation - just like the legitimate market," he says.

While most art transactions are legitimate, investors need to be wary when collecting, buying and selling. Art is an attractive target for criminals, some of whom study art with the aim of stealing it.

"The disposal of stolen art is facilitated by the lack of regulation of the industry and the fact that it is basically a second-hand goods market," Dr Graycar says.

One of the most effective moves against art theft has been the establishment of the Art Loss Register in 1991. It has offices in the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany.

The commercial register is the world's biggest computerised image database of stolen and missing art, antiquities and valuables.

The managing director of the register, James Emson, will be a speaker at the conference.

Police and customs officers, art dealers, the insurance industry and the general public consult the register, which has been instrumental in the recovery of more than 900 items worth $US75 million.

The database contains more than 100,000 stolen items and 10,000 to 12,000 are added each year.

Background notes on art theft

  • Provenance: As long as an art work has a believable provenance to ensure the work is not recognised as stolen, auction houses and dealers will accept it.

    False provenance can be created through an artwork being catalogued for sale by a major auction house and then withdrawn at the last minute so that it remains in the catalogue. Years later, the piece may be sold using the catalogue entry as proof of its authenticity.

    Through the repeated selling and buying back of an artwork, a convincing provenance is built up.

    Smaller auction houses that don't produce catalogues are a more popular vehicle for distributing stolen art than big ones whose catalogues are usually scanned by the Art Loss Register.

  • Where theft happens: Commercial galleries are the most common location for theft. It usually takes place during the day and from places which have easy access to an exit.

    Multiple thefts include the entire exhibition of 28 paintings by Grace Cossington Smith from a Melbourne gallery in 1977. In another instance, 10 paintings valued at $555,000 were taken from a Sydney gallery. In 1995, 30 Hans Heysen pieces were stolen in Adelaide.

  • How much of it happens: In London, art pieces comprise quite a high proportion of goods stolen in burglaries. However, in Australia, art theft is minor when compared with other goods stolen.

  • Art Loss Register: Before an auction, the catalogues of major auction houses throughout the world are routinely checked against the ALR's database. The number of stolen pieces identified this way averages about one in 4,500 offered for sale.

    The register's aims are: to recover stolen art and aid in its return to the rightful owners; provide a checkpoint to assure good title to prospective purchasers and lenders through a searching service that helps establish the provenance of an article, and to deter theft by reducing the potential resale value of stolen art.

    The register is funded largely by insurance companies.

  • Other databases: Interpol has recently compiled a CD-ROM containing 17,000 photographs and descriptions of valuables. The information is made available to the police, museums, auction houses and dealers in the 177 countries that are members of Interpol.