New York — Ten days ago, a Banksy print valued at about $40,000 was stolen from a Canadian exhibit of the artist’s work. It was a seemingly effortless crime — a man walked in, took the work off the wall, and walked out — but then, most art crimes are. The heavy lifting comes later.
“The main rule is that it’s not that hard to steal art, even from museums, but it’s almost impossible to translate that art into cash,” says Noah Charney, a scholar and author who’s published multiple books on art theft. Paintings can be quickly cut out of frames, and small sculptures can be tucked into bags — even jewellery can be secreted away — but finding a buyer for your art or diamonds is often impossible. “Criminals don’t understand that, because their knowledge of art crime is based on fiction and films,” Charney says.
There are exceptions, of course, including a much-reported theft from March 2017 when four men from an Arabic-Kurdish crime family in Germany broke into Berlin’s Bode Museum and stole a 110kg gold coin made by the Canadian Mint. Using DNA testing, the German police managed to hunt down and arrest the men in less than four months (one of them had worked as a security guard in the museum), but the coin was long gone.
The theft was notable, not just because the perpetrators were caught — a rarity in itself — but because they’d allegedly managed to sell what they stole for a significant sum of money. If art thieves knew how hard it really was to sell the art they’d stolen, Charney says, there would almost certainly be far fewer art thefts.