Art theft is the unlawful removal of a piece of art, which may be a painting, sculpture, sketch, piece of jewelry, or other item of artistic value. There are many different types of art theft, from looting to simple smash-and-grab larceny. Throughout history, art theft has often captured the attention of the world, as people wait curiously to see where a piece of stolen art will turn up.
Much of this type of theft is motivated by the possibility for financial gain. According to some experts, the vast majority of modern art theft is carried out during break-ins to wealthy homes in the hopes that a pretty piece of work will bring a pretty piece on the black market. In these cases, thefts of art are merely a byproduct of a home invasion, where anything that may be value can be a target.
Theft from museums and well-known private collections is somewhat more advanced and can have a wide variety of motivations. The black market for significant artworks is notoriously large, and continues to grow throughout the centuries as most art increases in value with age. Since most important art collections have heavy security, this type of art theft requires planning and organization far beyond the range of most petty thieves. Art theft is believed to play a part in most of the large-scale illegal activities in the world, from drug smuggling to arms deals.
According to some experts, art theft may sometimes be used to create collateral in unsavory deals. Organized crime leaders, who tend to live outside the law to begin with, may furnish their homes with the fruits of art theft, either offered as gifts or taken in deals. Since most famous or highly valuable works of art are insured, art may even be used as a hostage in return for high ransoms from the original owner.
Looting is a particularly tragic form of theft that often is associated with times of war. In World War II, tens of thousands of artworks were stolen by the Nazis from towns, museums, and homes that were raided. Not only was this pillaging financially fruitful, it also provided a means of destroying culture and art of which the Nazis disapproved. Even over 50 years later, restoring looted World War II artwork to the heirs and families of original owners is a complicated and often emotional process. Oftentimes, the art has been sold and resold repeatedly, creating an innocent third-party owner who may be out a sizable investment if he or she simply returns the work to the heirs of a previous owner.
Art theft is a crime that can have many victims, including the artwork itself. The older a piece of art is, the more delicately it must be handled; some famous artworks in museums undergo daily monitoring for signs of overexposure to UV rays, humidity, or other factors that could harm the piece. The mishandling of an artwork can knock years off its life, or even lead to the total destruction of the work.