Thieves have been stealing art since artists started creating it. The most common form of art theft in history is plundering, or stealing items from an opposing country during war. But art theft isn’t limited to war. Thieves often steal artistic treasures to sell them to shady collectors and dishonest art dealers. Buying and selling stolen art on purpose is called illegal art trafficking.
What Happens to Stolen Art?
If bandits get away with their art heist, they usually try to quickly sell their haul on the black market. (The black market isn’t a place. It’s a network of people around the world who buy and sell ill-gotten items.)
After the stolen goods change hands a few times, the fact that the art was stolen becomes difficult to trace. With their illegal origins hidden, stolen artworks can wind up in ethical collectors’ hands. Sometimes, collectors won’t find out their treasures were originally stolen until they put them up for sale or donate them to a museum.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) in Massachusetts, recently received a collection of African art from a well-known collector who had died. Eight works of art from the country of Nigeria were included in the gift. When the collector, named William Teel, bought the items, he believed they had been legally obtained.
Museum officials researched the provenance, or history of ownership, of the items from the Teel estate. MFA curator Victoria Reed came to the conclusion that the eight Nigerian objects “were probably illegally removed from Nigeria in recent years.”
Nigerian officials agreed. They also said several of the documents that supposedly authorized the sale and removal of the artworks from Nigeria were forged (fake).
The museum gave the artworks back to Nigeria in June 2014. Unfortunately, such honest dealings are rare. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says only 5 percent of stolen artworks are ever returned to their rightful owners.
Why Give the Art Back?
International laws say the person or institution that receives stolen art must give it back to its country of origin. But perhaps more important than law is the fact that a country’s art is a part of its identity and cultural history. Nations need to be able to say why their country is special. Art created by its people is a perfect way to express how a nation is unique.