The theft last week of priceless paintings, including works by Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani, from the Paris Museum of Modern Art was not only a large-scale property theft, but another reminder that our cultural property remains vulnerable to criminals with little regard for our history as a civilization.
High-value art theft is nothing new. In recent years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation created an art crime team to tackle the problem, a testament to its prevalence throughout the U.S. and around the world. Police agencies in Europe dedicate enormous resources towards recovering stolen art and antiquities, and INTERPOL has joined the fight with an online database of stolen art.
However, prevention of the theft of our priceless cultural treasures, not just the recovery of these artworks once they are stolen, is key.
To put the prevalence of art theft into perspective, in Massachusetts alone, nearly every major museum in the state has fallen victim to art theft. These thefts have included works by Rembrandt, Gaugin, Degas, Picasso, Manet, and Vermeer. Art is likely to remain an attractive target for criminals, who see art theft as a lucrative endeavor.
Ironically, history has proven that despite the high dollar values attributed to masterpieces, there's little, if any, money to be made in stealing art from museums. Thieves rarely think past the first step; they steal a priceless painting soon to find there's no market for it due, in part, to its high visibility and recognition that means it cannot be shown. Even the most brazen criminal or would-be collector is unlikely to pay ten cents -- or even a penny -- on the dollar for a $100 million painting that they can never display. If criminals recognized the minimal value of stolen art to them, perhaps there would be fewer art thefts.
So why does art theft still happen? One reason is that most people -- thieves included -- base their perception of art theft and the art underworld on portrayals they've seen in film or on television. Only after they have captured their stolen loot do they realize that there is no market for it.
Art thieves are not typically the glamorous, highly-skilled cat burglars of popular fiction. Art thieves are the bank robbers, stick up men, drug dealers, and amateurish miscreants common to every big city or town. Where there is a big city, there are usually museums and important private collections. In other words, art thieves are potentially everywhere.
In order to properly protect the public against further attacks on our cultural heritage, it's important that we understand who commits these crimes. Institutions need to realize that "it can happen here." At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which 20 years ago was the site of the biggest art theft in history, we know this all too well. That is why, even today, our security systems and procedures are in a constant state of improvement, utilizing the latest technologies and methods available to protect our unique collection. We're deeply committed to preventing another loss.
Rather than sit back awe-struck at the dollar amounts attributed to stolen art, it is essential that communities and institutions see art thefts such as these as a call to action to allocate resources towards and to remain vigilant in protecting our cultural heritage.
Anthony Amore has been the Director of Security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts since 2005. For the past five years, he has also served as the museum's chief investigator into the 1990 theft of 13 priceless works of art from that museum.