88% of museum heists are inside jobs.

Saint Petersburg, Russia

One summer day in 2012, Phivos Istavrioglu, 29, walked into a busy gallery in New York, lifted a Salvador Dalí painting from a wall, dropped it into his shopping bag and walked out. So far, so easy – but the hard part was to come. How do you offload a stolen masterpiece?

“I call it ‘headache art,’” says British former stolen-art dealer Turbo Paul. “Because it gives everyone a bloody headache. It’s too well-known to sell and law enforcement and insurance companies pursue it with vigor.” Turbo Paul should know: in 1985, aged 21, he was already a major handler of stolen artwork in the UK and the USA. Thieves may try to sell the art back to its owner, but museums often refuse to pay, knowing no major artwork has ever been destroyed over an unpaid ransom.

Istavrioglu demanded nothing. After one week he posted the picture back to the gallery from Greece, rolled up in a poster tube, and eight months later an undercover sting operation led to his indictment. Typically, investigators pose as wealthy art lovers with secret collections. They are nearly always the only buyers on the black market, and too good to be true.

Typically, investigators pose as wealthy art lovers with secret collections.

Smart thieves trade “headache art” to organized crime syndicates, either as collateral on loans or bartered for other illegal items. According to Turbo Paul, a US$10 million painting can be exchanged for $500,000-worth of drugs, and major pieces are used to strike bargains in court: “You would say ‘I have 10 years jail time but if I can get you this $10 million Picasso, can I get my sentence reduced?’ ”

In fact, famous artwork only constitutes a fraction of the $6 billion illegal art market, the world’s fourth highest-grossing illegal trade after drugs, arms and human trafficking. Most of the trade is in high volumes of lesser-known pieces, especially antiquities, which account for 75 percent of sales and require minimal records of provenance. With the exception of Italy’s Tutela Patrimonio Culturale – a wing of the Carabinieri police tackling 20-30,000 art thefts a year – few countries are prepared to cope with the scale of the business, despite its links to organized crime and even terrorism. In 2000, 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta approached experts in Germany, offering Afghan antiquities. He needed to sell them, he explained, because he wanted to buy a plane.


From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.