Friday, April 5, 2013

Mum’s the word: Should we alert art thieves to the value of their haul?


Another day, another theft from a museum...and another tranche of media articles alerting the thieves to the market value of what they’ve just stolen. Clearly we cannot stop journalists researching the likely open market value of stolen works of art, particularly when art price databases are so widely available and high prices make juicy headlines, but what’s the industry intelligence on this? Should law enforcement authorities, art theft investigators and specialist art crime research agencies reveal values or not? 

This question occurred to me while reading ARCA CEO Lynda Albertson's excellent and informative piece on this week's theft of important Castellani jewellery (left) from Rome's Villa Giulia Museum. 

If you believe, as many erroneously do, that stolen works of art have no economic value whatsoever (because they cannot be sold on the open market), then it logically follows that there is no harm in revealing recent auction prices for comparable works. In doing so you're just telling the criminals how stupid they are. However, if you believe, as I do, that thieves often derive real economic value from art theft (albeit only a fraction of legitimate market value) through insurance ransoms, using the objects as collateral against other criminal commodities, or benefiting from “rewards for information leading to recovery”, etc. — then surely there is genuine harm in revealing recent market prices. Won’t this only encourage further thefts?

There is, of course, a difference between the theft of works by ‘blue chip’ artists, the notional values of which are more widely known, and the theft of more academic material or unique works that have no direct or obvious market equivalent. We are therefore doing ourselves — and indeed the aggrieved museums or private collections — no favours by alerting thieves to the market value of comparably rare objects or comparable objects from specialist niche categories. The objects might have been nicked on commission (whisper it) on behalf of a collector with an aesthetic passion for such things and who in any event would never sell (in which case their market value is largely irrelevant). But they might also have been stolen opportunistically, in which case why inform the thieves as to the likely black market value of their haul?

The recent theft from the Rotterdam Kunsthal immediately triggered a hail of media reports estimating the likely market value of the hoard. Almost all of these were so wide of the mark as to be laughable to anyone with specialist knowledge of the art market. But they made good headlines. More critically, they may well have served to encourage other criminals to have a go. 

I don’t know the answer to this, but my instinct tells me that those who understand art's economic value (and particularly the relationship between legitimate and black market values) would generally refrain from educating the criminal fraternity on the financial upside of art theft. 

I’d be interested to hear what specialists in the ‘art crime industry’ think. Should we broadcast prices? Or keep ‘schtum’?