How The World’s Art Thieves Turn Stolen Pictures Into Legitimate Commodities

photo by Jeffrey via Flickr

Ah yes, fine art: we love to ogle it, discuss it with fellow aesthetes, and revel in its beauty — and some of us apparently love to steal it, too.

According to the FBI, thieves love to steal artwork so much that art theft has become the world’s third largest criminal enterprise, accounting for (nominally) $6-8 billion annually, and is only exceeded by the illicit sale of guns and drugs.

art theft

But believe it or not, for criminals, the process of stealing priceless artwork may be the easy part. It’s what to do with the stolen goods after they’ve been absconded with that requires real ingenuity. After all, there’s only one real Mona Lisa, and even the most dimwitted detective can grasp that process of elimination.

This is not to say that stolen artwork doesn’t get dealt. In fact, an art thief (at least one who’s not intent on getting caught) can sometimes successfully redistribute their plunder in a few different ways, which in some cases may even result in its return to legal circulation.

Here’s how the process works.

How art thieves sell their stolen goods

There are two major ways in which thieves can dish their stolen artwork.

Through the black market

For art thieves looking to fence a globally recognized painting by Picasso, posting an ad on Craigslist just won’t do. So, like just about any illegal commodity, stolen artwork can funnel in through the black market.

Once a painting is stolen, a properly prepared thief will already have unscrupulous art dealers to which the they can sell their hot pictures, albeit usually at only about 10 percent of the paintings’ open market value.

Once they are sold, paintings can be passed between dealers via private auctions (markets which are unregulated and therefore unfathomably opaque) where their value will slowly begin to rise as the risk of trading the art decreases.

In some cases, if the painting is low-profile enough and has passed through enough dealers, some degree of laundering is possible, and the painting may even resurface into open markets as if it was never stolen (a scenario which Steven Spielberg may be all too familiar with).

Though possible, this method isn’t the only way art thieves can pass their stolen loot. Sometimes a little subterfuge is all it takes.

Faking a fake

Though it may seem counterintuitive, thieves may also sell their stolen artwork by convincing buyers the the work is actually a fake.

By doing this, thieves can pass their stolen artwork as a true-to-life replica and, like the method described before, can then sell the work for significantly less than the open market value.

Risk versus reward often prevails in this scenario, however, and if desperate enough, art thieves may even try to hold their stolen paintings for ransom.

Do thieves get away with it?

Ever fantasized about becoming an art thief? Well, there’s a couple realities a serious robber will have to deal with.

A.) Stealing the art is extremely risky, but doable if planned properly

B.) Once stolen, turning the artwork for a profit will make orchestrating the heist seem as easy as stealing candy from a baby (not that you should do either of those things)

According to Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s art crime team, explains that thieves will often steal priceless paintings without somebody to sell them to–a fatal flaw which often gets them caught.

Part of what makes dishing stolen art so difficult is of course the prowess of global organizations tasked with hunting art thieves down (namely the FBI art crime division and Interpol) but also The Art Loss Register, which logs every high profile stolen painting in the world.

According to Newsweek, only about 10 percent of stolen art is actually recovered.


The difficulty thieves experience when trying to fence their stolen goods can sometimes lead to timeless pieces being pushed underground–sometimes never to be seen again.

The whereabouts of items stolen in the largest heist in recorded history, which includes paintings from Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Degas and totals anywhere between $300 to $500 million in value, still remains mostly a mystery. Investigators believe that the art has still yet to enter any market, meaning they’re likely being held somewhere in secret.

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