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
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
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
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