#Art News magazine’s recent reprint of an in-house 1961 article by Thomas B. Hess, former editor of the magazine, is an odd choice since most of the content is out of date. Hess began by observing the unusually high number of art thefts in 1961 and surmised that the increase was an “art-theft fad.” Traditionally, he said, such robberies are on-and-off acts of “psychopaths.” He defined the condition as “romantically lost in an object.”

Are art lovers mentally ill?

In keeping with Hess’s definition, all art lovers must be mentally ill because they often get lost in their objects of affection. One of his examples was the “mad connoisseur” who stole Watteau’s “L’Indifférent” from the Louvre to protect it from museum conservators.

Hess said that this sort of thievery is committed by “gentle maniacs” and classified their motives as “hostile reverence” rather than money.  But if money is the motivation, Hess said, "then stealing must have turned profitable," either through ransom or insurance settlements. He was only half right on account of his resistance to the possibility of a thieves market. He called an underground black market for art “ridiculous.” Yet some 40 years later Connoisseur magazine provided details about how $2 billion worth of museum works are made off with annually. In the words of FBI investigator for national art crime Robert Wittman, “The true art of stealing is not the stealing, it’s the selling.”

How to cheat the art market

Even without the information from Connoisseur magazine and Wittman, the sheer number of stolen works points to a ready market.

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It works like this: an exhibit example gets ripped off, the bandit records it in some offbeat country auction, and buys it back in order to obtain a certificate of purchase. At that point, he’s ready to sell.  This is where collectors come in. They don't want to know the back story. That way, if their purchase is ever proved stolen, they can plead ignorance. This would explain why the International Foundation for Art Research report shows that while a quarter-million works worldwide have been stolen since 1976, less than 300 works are ever retrieved.

Art as currency

Stolen art is like currency and often used as an asset to secure loans. According to Connoisseur, the Swiss regularly use painting or sculpture this way. Great works that have disappeared and never found are routinely  stored in bank vaults and used repeatedly to secure loans. Just this past Saturday Spanish police arrested seven people suspected of involvement in the theft of five paintings worth $27.8 million by the celebrated British painter Francis Bacon. If they’re never found, do you want to bet where they might be now?

Post Script: One part of Hess’s article has held up to time. He blamed the rise in pilfered paintings and stolen sculpture on the media because art stories so often come with the dollar sign. The upshot is that art has become a commodity that can be bought and sold like chattel. #Buzz