What Do the INTERPOL Stats Reveal About Art Theft?

Art Market

March 23, 2018

Although rarely seen as something dramatic or exciting in a way bank robberies can appear to be, art thefts are actually a significant problem of world's economy. Estimated to be responsible for losses ranging anywhere between $4 to 6 billion worldwide, art thefts are only exceeded by drug trafficking, money laundering and arms dealing in terms of dollar value, which is quite astonishing when you think about it.

In order to get a clearer picture of what the current art theft climate really is, we took a look at INTERPOL's art theft database, which is actually the largest public database of its kind. After all, if the International Criminal Police Organization with its 192 member countries isn't able to reveal a thing or two about how artwork thieves operate, the art world might be in more serious trouble than we thought.

Cities With Recovered Artworks
Cities With Recovered Artworks

Which Countries Are the Most Common Targets For Art Thieves

According to INTERPOL's database, some countries are clearly more affected than others when it comes to art thefts. It's pretty obvious that the chaos of war provides the perfect cover for stealing valuable works of art, so countries in the midst of a conflict naturally provide better circumstances for criminals wishing to get their hands on an artwork that does not belong to them. So, following that logic, it's quite clear that places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya are prime locations for an art theft to take place.

Interestingly, while the "big four" nations secured the top spots with ease, the next seven most popular countries for artwork robbers are all from Europe: France, Austria, Germany, Ukraine, Romania, Belarus and, finally, Serbia which sits at the tenth spot.

No, your eyes are not playing a trick on you - certainly the biggest surprise on the list is the absence of the United States. They are quite low on the list and, furthermore, the US is more than reasonably good at recovering pieces stolen on their soil.

Since we're on that note, it's only fitting to take a look at how effectively nations recover stolen artworks. Naturally, the poorer the conditions of the country are, the bigger the chances are that stolen works of art are never seen again. Some nations are better at recovering stolen pieces than others, but in general, European countries recover more of their stolen art than any other region. As it was said earlier, the US is more than capable of tracking down works of art too.

Countries With Most Art Thefts
Countries With Most Art Thefts

The Kind of Art Most Commonly Found on Thieves' Radar

Since each (officially reported) stolen item is categorized in INTERPOL's database, it's possible to get a somewhat precise picture of which pieces are the most popular as far as the thieves are concerned.

Unsurprisingly, sculptures and paintings make up a vast majority of stolen pieces. Although this can be attributed to their prevalence, it's also possible to make a case that sculptures and paintings are the most common target due to the prices they are able to fetch on the black art market.

An interesting fact is that weapons are quite popular amongst thieves, with items such as decorative shields and bejeweled daggers being very typical targets. It should be noted that this article does not take into account stolen firearms as this sub-category has no artistic merit and is therefore outside the scope of today's study.

Art Theft Type
Types of Artworks Most Likely to Attract Robbers

How Old is the Majority of Stolen Artworks?

The approximate age of each stolen piece of art is also something the INTERPOL is keeping a close eye on, which allows us to see which time periods are the most attractive to robbers.

Records show that the majority of thefts are associated with works produced in the past 300 years. Although this can be attributed to the fact older works are better protected, such a statistic could also be explained by stating that recent works of art are by far more spread out and easier to locate. Following that train of thought, it seems the 21st century hasn’t produced enough artworks yet to rival its centurial predecessor - "yet" being the key word here.

However, despite this reasoning, the 7th and 2nd century are interestingly sitting at number 5 and 6 spots respectfully. Even the 6th century BC managed to make its way onto the list, sneaking in at number 10, so there's a strong case to be made that the time frame plays no significant factor to thieves choosing what to rob - other things, like value or security, are by far more important to them.

Art Theft Period
Popular Time Periods For Art Thieves

Who Is Buying The Pieces "Acquired" Through Art Thefts?

One of the most natural questions that comes to mind when talking about stolen artworks is who is buying all that stolen art? Someone obviously is because nobody would go through all the trouble of stealing something if there was no profit to it.

By considering where art is ordinarily recovered, it becomes possible to understand where the intended customers of this black market trade can be located. According to INTERPOL, Europe is where the most of stolen art is going regardless of where the theft took place.

If we were to take a closer look at the cities that have the highest amount of recovered stolen art, it becomes clear that Paris is where the majority of these pieces will end up. Aranđelovac in Serbia and London in the UK come up as second and third entries respectively.

It should be noted that all the information for this article was scraped from available records found in the public INTERPOL art robberies database that contains 4612 unique records of art theft dated from 1991 to 2017. All the information present in this text is accurate as of November 2017.

Art Theft Recovered Countries
Countries With the Most Recovered Artworks

Editors’ Tip: Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft

In recent years, art theft has captured the public imagination more than ever before, spurred by both real-life incidents (the snatching of Edvard Munch’s well-known masterwork The Scream) and the glamorous fantasy of such Hollywood films as The Thomas Crown Affair. The truth is, according to INTERPOL records, more than 20,000 stolen works of art are missing — including Rembrandts, Renoirs, van Goghs and Picassos. Museum of the Missing offers an intriguing tour through the underworld of art theft, where the stakes are high and passions run strong. If all the paintings presented here could be gathered in one museum, it would be one of the finest collections in existence.

Featured image: Art Robbery, via escaperoommap.lv. All images via Element Paints.