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What are the Different Types of Art Theft?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for MyLawQuestions. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By Ana1234 — On Dec 27, 2013

Much is made of the Nazi art theft but in reality a huge amount of aboriginal art in museums was stolen from people during colonization. In some cases money or goods were exchanged, but the people involved didn't realize the worth of what they were trading, which might as well be theft.

There are still examples of Maori tattooed heads in museums in Europe, for example, which were often slaves taken on war raids and killed to supply the shrunken head curiosities to the visiting English and Dutch traders.

I mean, on the one hand it's a beautiful and important kind of art, but on the other, those are actual peoples' heads. The Maori now consider them to basically be stolen and have asked for them all to be returned for burial or at least storage out of the public view.

By lluviaporos — On Dec 27, 2013

@bythewell - The sad thing is that often works of art are stolen by people who don't have any idea how to take care of old art, and so they can be damaged, sometimes beyond repair, before anyone can recover them.

In one famous case a mother realized her son had stolen some important art works and she actually burned them in their fireplace in order to keep them from the police.

Priceless art gone forever, but she had no idea of their value (and may not have cared even if she did).

Art theft is awful because art should be kept with people who care for it and allowed to be shown to the world.

By bythewell — On Dec 26, 2013

At least the paintings are still out there somewhere and there is hope that they can one day be recovered. I think often famous art thefts end with the piece of art being found in an attic somewhere, because the thief didn't realize how difficult it would be to sell the piece.

I mean, you wouldn't be able to display it to anyone who knew what it was, because they would also know it was stolen. So why would anyone pay for it? I don't know if anyone is that materialistic that they want to steal paintings so that only they can enjoy them.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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