Every day a work of art is stolen somewhere in the world. Thieves rip paintings from walls, sever canvases from their frames with razors or even screwdrivers, raid warehouses with assault rifles, saw sculptures from their bases with chainsaws and haul them away in trucks. In February, three masked men raided the E.G. Burhle Collection, a small museum in Zurich, Switzerland. At gunpoint, they forced patrons and museum staffers to the floor and made off with four 19th-century paintings worth about $165 million. Two of the paintings were later found in an unlocked car parked at a psychiatric facility, less than a mile from the museum. The thieves and the other two paintings remain missing. According to the Art Loss Register, a private company that tracks and recovers purloined art, at least 10,500 works of art and antiquities were stolen last year.
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Art crime's history is long and bloody, dominated by the plundering of invading armies. Think of the eight Egyptian obelisks that still anchor the piazzas of Rome, spoils of the ancient Roman Empire's conquest of the Nile kingdom. Napoleon famously looted thousands of pieces from Italy. And innumerable works were stolen by the Nazis, forcibly sold, or otherwise lost, during World War II.
More recently, museums and ancient sites in Afghanistan and Iraq have suffered massive losses amid armed conflict while countries such as Cambodia, with rich artistic histories but meager resources to protect them, see their treasures smuggled out of the country and lost to history.
Most art crime, however, occurs on a much smaller scale, with about 40 percent of thefts reported to the Art Loss Register coming from private homes or collections and about 15 percent from museums and galleries. Whether it's a dramatic museum heist or opportunistic house-burglary, all of them fuel a lucrative black market. Because most thefts go unreported, the illegal trade in art and antiquities amounts to roughly a $6-billion a year industry. What's stolen changes with the fashion of the times, but unlike the stock market, the market for stolen art and antiquities has never and likely never will collapse.