Turning a Profit From Art Theft Actually Extremely Difficult, Says FBI’s Art Theft Czar

Speaking to the Atlantic shortly after yesterday’s pre-dawn theft of seven paintings by masters of modern and contemporary art from Rotterdam Kunsthal, Robert Wittman — founder of the FBI‘s art crimes unit and the author of “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures” — was quick to burst the thieves’ bubble.

“I mean, let’s face it, an artwork is basically a piece of canvass with some paint on it,” he told the Atlantic. “So whenever you talk about these paintings, it’s a matter of authenticity and provenance and legal title. And if you don’t have one of those three things, you don’t have value.”

Addressing the Rotterdam heist specifically, Wittman explains:

Paintings that are stolen like last night, those pieces that were taken out of the Kuhnsthal museum, are not going to get sold on any kind of market, whether it’s a black market or any kind of market. They’re going to get recovered. But what happens with pieces that are worth much less — let’s say the $10,000 and less market, pieces that aren’t well known — is a burglar goes into a home and steals a $5,000 painting. That can be sold in a flea market, that can be sold on what they call the secondary art market, because it’s not well known. And that’s the vast majority of art heists. It’s not these once a year museum thefts. It’s burglaries around the world. And that’s the major part of the art theft business and the collectibles business.

Wittman also outlines three different types of art thieves, and offers a tantalizing anecdote about an international sting operation he was involved in orchestrating back in 2008. In response to a question about the works stolen during the legendary Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, he offers:

I don’t think that they were sold. I think that they’re stored. And the reason I say that is towards the end of my career in 2008, I was undercover on an investigation involving Miami, Madrid, Barcelona and Paris. And we identified a group in Marseille that had 75 paintings that they had stolen from all around Europe, and they wanted to sell them. And none of them had been sold. These were obviously paintings that had been stolen from many different heists. And nobody had made any money on them.

Read the entire interview here.

— Benjamin Sutton