Art theft is big business.
Estimates put the losses between $4 to 6 billion worldwide.
In terms of dollar value, the crime is only exceeded by drug trafficking, money laundering and arms dealing.
The International Criminal Police Organization, more commonly known as INTERPOL, is the world’s largest police organization. With 192 member countries they facilitate cooperation between almost every country on earth.
They also act as a central hub for tracking criminal activities around the globe, such as art theft.
We analyzed the INTERPOL art theft database – the largest public database of it’s kind – to find out what these art thieves are up to.
Which Countries Are Art Thieves Targeting?
Some countries are clearly more affected more than others and it seems the chaos of war provides the perfect cover for stealing valuable works of art.
- Countries that have recently been at war are the most vulnerable with the top four being Iraq, Afganistan, Syria, and Libya. To make matters worse, a huge proportion of those stolen works of art have never been recovered.
- The next seven countries are all from Europe: France, Austria, Germany, Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, Serbia. Some are better at recovering stolen pieces than others but in general European countries recover more of their stolen art than other regions.
- For those interested, the United States is quite low on the list and is reasonably good at recovering stolen pieces.
What Type of Objects Do they Like to Steal?
Each stolen item in the INTERPOL database has been categorized, so we can see which pieces are the most popular among thieves.
- Sculptures and paintings make up the majority of stolen items. This could be attributed to their prevalence, or perhaps the demand for such items is higher due to a higher value on the black market.
- Surprisingly the Weapons category made it into the top 10, with items such as decorative shields and bejeweled daggers been very popular.
How Old Is the Art They Are Stealing?
The approximate age of each piece of art has also been recorded, so we can see which time period is the most popular.
- The majority of thefts are from works produced in the past 300 years. This could be because works of art from the most recent history are the most common, and therefore the easiest to steal.
- Following this logic, it seems the 21st century hasn’t produced enough art yet to be included in the top 10.
- In comparison, works of art from the 7th and 2nd century would be quite rare and are interestingly sitting at spots number 5 and 6 on the top 10 list.
- Even though 6th century BC is on the bottom of our list, it still made it into the top 10! Work from this era would be exceptionally rare and an incredible shame if they’re never recovered.
Who Is Buying This Stolen Art?
By examining where art is recovered we can understand who are the intended customers of this black market trade.
Looking at this graph it’s clear to see where the stolen art is going – Europe.
- Almost all the stolen art from Europe stays in Europe.
- A huge proportion of art stolen from Asia ends up in Europe.
- Almost all of the art stolen from Africa ends up in Europe.
- Even most of the of the stolen pieces from America are found in Europe.
This graph examines recovered pieces of art – it obviously does not include data on pieces that are still missing. Therefore it looks a bit different to the makeup of the “Countries” chart which includes data on all stolen pieces of art, recovered or not.
Which Cities Have the Most Stolen Art?
Taking a closer look we can see which city has the highest amount of recovered stolen art, and it’s clear to see that Paris is where the majority of these pieces will end up.
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We scraped all of the available records from the public Interpol art theft database in November 2017. It contained 4612 unique records of art theft dated from 1991 to 2017.
To improve the visual clarity of the bubble graph “Which Countries Have the Most Art Theft” countries with less than 10 stolen pieces were excluded.
Additionally, we decided to exclude the sub-category Firearms (shotguns, rifles, etc) from all calculations because the majority of these had no artistic merit and were therefore outside the scope of our study. Other weapons with artistic value (decorative shields and bejewel daggers, etc) were included.
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