Art theft is still happening, and it will very likely continue happening in the foreseeable future.
As long as there is art and somebody willing to pay for it, there will also be opportunists who will be willing to steal it.
Here’s what the current art theft trends and statistics can tell us.
Global Art Theft Statistics and Trends
- Europe is a global hotspot for art theft and stolen art.
- In 2018, Paris ranked as the top city where stolen art is recovered, followed by Arandjelovac, London, Baghdad, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Tallinn, Barcelona, Belgrade, and Brasov.
- Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya are the leading countries where works of art are being stolen.
- The most commonly stolen pieces of art are sculptures, paintings, and ceramics.
According to the data collected by Interpol in 2020 from 72 countries, cultural property theft, as a whole, is increasing.
Globally, 854,742 cultural property objects were seized in 2020 alone. This includes a number of different objects, including various forms of art such as sculptures, paintings, and more.
In other words, it is a broader category, but it shows just how significant the issue is.
Europe stands as the current leader in terms of art theft prevalence and as a location where stolen art is being uncovered and seized by authorities. A total of 66.39% or 567,465 objects were seized in 2020 in Europe, alone.
- Art theft continued despite global lockdowns in 2020.
During 2020, about 95% of museums closed their doors, which, according to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), led to a notable decrease in art theft from museums.
That said, there were still some notable art thefts, like Van Gogh’s The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring from the Singer Laren Museum in Amsterdam and the three paintings from Christ Church College in Oxford.
Interestingly enough, the demand for stolen art did not go down, so many thieves had to look for new ways to deal with the implemented restrictions at the time.
There are clear trends in art theft reported by the different regions. The Assessment Crime Against Cultural Property in 2021 report by Interpol gives us some interesting insight into regional trends.
- The most stolen cultural property type in Europe in 2021 fell in the numismatic items category (53%), paintings (8%), archeological items (6%), sculptures (6%), library materials 5%, religious items (3%), and artistic craft (2%).
- In Asia and the South Pacific, library materials clocked in at a whopping 40%, followed by archeological items (15%), graphics (13%), cultures (11%), and paintings (4%).
- In the Americas, 39% of the stolen items were categorized as others, followed by archeological items (15%), library items (14%), and paintings (14%).
- In Africa, 95% of the stolen objects were numismatic items, followed by sculptures (3%), and archeological items (2%).
There are some interesting trends in terms of what are the most commonly uncovered stolen items in the different regions by the authorities.
- About 31% of all seized cultural property items in Europe in 2021 were library items, followed by archaeological items (43%), and numismatic items (14%). Just 3% of the seized items were paintings.
- The vast majority of seized items in Asia and the South Pacific were numismatic items (62%), followed by archeological items (32%).
- In the Americas, 64% of all seized objects were archeological items followed by paleontological items (29%).
- In Africa, approximately 67% of all seized items fell in the numismatic category.
Stolen Art Recovery Rates
William Fleischer, the president of Bernard Fleischer & Sons, an insurance brokerage firm based in New York City, shares that the recovery rate of stolen art is very low.
Unfortunately, that has remained true for almost as long as art theft has existed.
- Experts estimate that recovery rates of stolen art are likely below 10%, with some experts pointing out that the actual recovery rates may be as low as 2% to 3%.
Those trends become very apparent once we take a look into the large number of stolen artworks that have remained unrecovered for decades.
There are many highly valued art pieces that are still unrecovered despite some being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars.
Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database alone contains more than 52,000 records of stolen works of art at the time of writing this article.
Art Theft Incidence Statistics
- Estimates suggest that between 50,000 and 100,000 works of art are stolen each year globally, with actual numbers suspected of being potentially significantly higher.
- The black market for stolen art was estimated at as much as $6 billion back in 2009.
Art gets stolen more often than one may expect.
Even back in 1988, it was estimated that in Italy alone, about 44,000 pieces of art are stolen annually, followed by France, according to the Tracking Recent Trends in the International Market for Art Theft report, published in the Journal of Cultural Economics,
What’s more, certain artworks can get targeted and successfully stolen multiple times.
- The most stolen art piece is the Ghent Altarpiece, which has been stolen at least 7 times. The Ghent Altarpiece has fallen victim to various crimes at least 11 to 15 times in total over the years.
Another example is the Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer painting by Frans Hals, which in 2020 was stolen for the third time.
Experts argue that it may not always be all about the resale value of the art piece, but more a question of reputation, prestige, and recognition. Stolen art can always be used at opportune times as collateral or even used in negotiations with the authorities.
And if you are wondering, the Mona Lisa has been stolen just once, but it has been vandalized several times over the years.
Stolen Art Value Statistics
Now, if you are wondering whether stolen art has value—it most certainly does. The main purpose of stealing art is, naturally, the resale value.
However, there are no clear numbers in terms of the actual value of the art that is stolen each year, because the value can vary wildly.
There are artworks that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But things are not as good in reality as they may seem at first.
- Stolen high-end artwork is surprisingly difficult to resale.
As Robert Wittman, a former FBI agent, dealing with stolen art, says, “The true art in art theft is not in the stealing, it’s in the selling.”
Selling a work of art that is famous and well-known can prove to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to sell without gaining unwanted attention from the authorities—which is what was suspected to be the case with the discovery of 2 stolen Van Gogh paintings in 2016.
- Stolen artwork loses a significant amount of its original value on the black market. Despite that, art theft can still be highly profitable.
In many cases, stolen artworks lose a significant amount of their value when they get stolen and hit the black market.
In his book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art, the author, Joshua Knelman, shares that stolen paintings may get sold for about 10% of their estimated value.
Anthony Amore, director of security at the Gardner Museum suggested that even 10% might still be too expensive when it comes to masterpieces.
Largest Art Theft Statistics
- The highest value art theft in history is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft, which is estimated at a total of $500 million.
During the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft of 1990, a total of 13 art pieces were stolen, which have a combined estimated value of $500,000,000.
Today, the estimated value is considered to be even higher.
Among the pieces stolen were artworks by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Flinck, Manet, and Degas.
All of the artworks are yet to be recovered.
- The highest-value painting stolen that is yet to be recovered is The Concert by Vermeer, which is valued at $250 million.
One of the stolen art pieces during the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist—Vermeer’s The Concert—is considered the most expensive painting ever stolen, estimated at $250,000,000. Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which was also stolen during the same heist, is valued at $100,000,000.
- The largest number of stolen artworks in a single heist happened at Iraq’s National Museum, where nearly 14,000 art items were stolen.
One cannot help but remember Iraq’s National Museum looting, which occurred in 2003, where approximately 14,000 works of art were stolen. This is considered by some to be the biggest museum theft in history.
The thieves had a 36-hour window, and considering that there were around 500,000 different items in the museum at the time it is a surprise that the actual numbers are not higher.
So far, nearly 5,400 out of the 14,000 were recovered by the authorities.
Digital Art Theft Statistics
Over the years, digital art theft has been becoming more and more prevalent and difficult to deal with.
While a painting like the Mona Lisa exists in the physical world as an object, stealing of which poses a lot of problems, digital art can be stolen, oftentimes, in seconds with a few clicks.
There’s also the fact that once something starts circulating freely on the internet, it can be nearly impossible to prevent its spread or even discover in a reasonable amount of time that it was stolen by somebody in the first place.
Even emerging technologies such as NFT that were expected to help in preventing digital artwork theft have proven not enough as there have been multiple cases of thieves stealing anything they can put their hands on and then selling it online while passing it off as their own work.
The emergence of AI has brought a whole new set of problems that brought up a lot of new concerns about whether or not AI-generated art is stolen art.
This is turning into a very controversial topic as many people consider the fact that the AI has been trained, and continues to be trained, on artwork that has been scraped off the Internet without any consent from the owners of said artwork.
What’s more, the fact that no human being stands behind those AI-generated images makes it exceedingly hard for artists to protect their artwork.
We are already seeing numerous cases being brought to court, however, we are yet to see what the final say will be.