Stolen-Art Market Is a Big Business At $2 Billion a Year

IN Frankfurt, Germany, thieves tied up the art gallery's night watchman. In Boston, they entered an unguarded warehouse at night and cracked a big safe. In both cities, the objective was the same: Snatch the famous paintings and run.

The thefts late last month of two of J.M.W. Turner's landscapes from the Schirn Gallery in Frankfurt and of Mather Brown's portrait of Thomas Jefferson from a Boston warehouse safe on July 30, made headlines around the world: another megabuck heist of well-known art by unknown thugs.

The value of the Turner and two other paintings is an estimated $50 million. The Jefferson portrait, the earliest known painting of the third president of the United States, is insured for $500,000, but considered priceless.

The notoriety that comes when famous works of art are stolen does not necessarily mean that such crimes are on the increase around the world. ``I'm inclined to think there is less of it these days,'' says Bill Smith, director of fine-arts claims at Graham Miller International of New York, an insurance-adjustment company.

``In the '80s, the market value of art received so much attention, not because of the art, but because paintings were auctioned for unheard-of sums,'' he says. ``It sounded like a good day's pay to thieves. But they learned that well-known art is difficult to unload.''

Factor in archaeological looting along with fine-art thievery, and Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) in New York, thinks the level of stolen art and antiquities has reached $2 billion a year. Of that sum, she estimates that fine-art thefts work out to a $750 million-a-year market.

``From our point of view, the thievery never stops,'' she says. ``But if there was a graph drawn of fine-art theft over the last decade, and remembering that not all stolen art is reported, I don't think you would find a major increase under way. It goes in spurts.''

N Boston, where the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was pilfered one night in 1990 of $200 million worth of paintings - including two Rembrandts, several by Degas, a Manet, and a Vermeer - experts say there is no increase in theft.

``The publicity over the Gardner case and now the Jefferson theft makes it seem like a lot,'' says Bill McMullin, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Boston. ``But I don't see a change in the pattern of frequency, at least in Boston.''

By contrast, law enforcement officials in other cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, report steady increases in cases of stolen art. ``Basically, we can't keep up with it,'' says an official in Los Angeles. According to IFAR, which began maintaining an art-loss registry in 1989, about 1,500 items a year are registered from all over the US in their New York office. Approximately 60,000 items now are listed on the registry.

In IFAR's affiliated London office, the yearly figure is a little higher. ``Most people steal art for the same reason they steal a car or a VCR: for money,'' says Anna Kisluk, director of the Art Loss Register at IFAR in New York. ``They want to sell it and make something off it.''

Apparently, most succeed. The recovery rate for stolen art is only 10 to 12 percent, law-enforcement officials say. But the recovery rate for world-class works of stolen art - a Van Gogh, Rembrandt, or Goya - is better than for lesser-known stolen works. ``For famous works of art the recovery rate is around 50 percent,'' Ms. Lowenthal says.

``With lesser-known things, they tend to drift into the legitimate market and nobody notices,'' Mr. Smith says. ``A lot of art is stolen and never recovered because it doesn't attract attention in the legitimate market.''

But in a way, the fame of stolen major artworks can work to protect each piece. In case after case, unless a painting is held for insurance ransom or destroyed, which is rare, the art reappears in public. ``The paintings in the Gardner theft, for instance, are so well known that they will never cool off, never go unnoticed,'' McMullin says. ``It's not uncommon for major works to reappear after a number of years.''

For years, popular speculation has concluded that there is a vast, organized black market or underworld where thieves, dealers, and collectors buy and sell stolen art. ``I don't know that there is one organized circuit for these things,'' Lowenthal says, ``but there are certainly people who know how to move things across national borders and dispose of them away from the crime site.''

Where does Lowenthal think the Gardner art is now? ``In storage,'' she says, after a long pause, ``waiting for the temperature to drop, waiting for it to cool off. It may never happen.''

``Since the date of the theft, there have been no confirmed sightings of any of the pieces taken,'' McMullin says. ``There have been no contacts by anyone representing the paintings. We have covered leads around the world, and all has been negative.''

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