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Stolen Art

Valuable antiques and works of art have been the targets of professional thieves for ages. Stealing and trading cultural artifacts was denounced as a crime in Egyptian legal documents dating from as early as 1134 B.C. And despite recent glamorous portrayals of art heists such as the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair, the real crime is a serious problem worldwide.

The problem has become so prevalent that in 1991 the art and insurance communities jointly began the Art Loss Register in an attempt to fight art thefts around the globe. The register allows major auctioneers, collectors and art buyers to check their catalogues to determine whether a valuable piece is stolen property. The ALR lists about 1,200 new items each month and has a total of more than 120,000 stolen paintings, sculptures, furnishings and other valuable artifacts on file. The article "Stolen Art and The Art Loss Register" from the Australian magazine The World of Antiques & Art explains the workings of the ALR in detail.

Another major international organization devoted to preventing art losses and recovering stolen artifacts is the International Council of Museums. ICOM's Red List is a directory of African archeological objects at risk of being looted by thieves.




Other major law enforcement agencies have their own databases of stolen artwork, including the Interpol database of stolen art. The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is also devoted to International Cultural Property Protection. The Los Angeles Police Department even has its own Art Theft Detail which has recovered more than $75 million worth of stolen artwork since 1993.

According to the Art Loss Register, 54 percent of art thefts occur in domestic dwellings. However, the next three highest areas of theft occur in museums and galleries (12 percent each) and in churches (10 percent.) For this reason, institutions housing valuables have set up organizations to combat and prevent art thefts. These include the Univeristy of Cambridge's Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, which monitors and reports on the international trade of stolen antiquities, and MuseumSecurity.Org, which has a mailing list that provides regular reports on stolen museum items.

One of the most serious cases of art loss occurred during the Holocaust, when Nazi soldiers frequently looted art from the homes of prominent Jewish families. The Holocaust Art Restitution Project seeks to return art stolen during the Holocaust to its rightful owners. CNN.com has also published multiple articles on the subject:


   --- A. Harris

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