Home Think Tank A mini-Explainer on how thieves sell stolen art

A mini-Explainer on how thieves sell stolen art

From Slate:

Since everyone knows the paintings are stolen, it’s impossible to sell them at auction. How do thieves profit from a high-profile art heist?

The black market. Most stolen art work goes underground. The thief sells his haul to an unscrupulous art dealer, who usually sells it on to a private collector who keeps it for a while. After several years and many subsequent underground transactions, relatively obscure pieces can be sold in the open, especially through small auction houses that don’t specialize in art. Even after a generation, however, it will be very difficult to bring a stolen Picasso or a Monet back to auction.

Thieves offer paintings by the masters at incredible discounts. According to Joshua Knelman’s book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art, a stolen painting usually goes for around 10 percent of its legitimate auction value in the first sale between criminal and shady dealer. The price is low because both parties are at risk. The initial buyers usually know the works are stolen, especially since experienced black marketeers typically buy only from thieves they’re already familiar with. In subsequent sales, the price usually jumps substantially as the risk of punishment drops. In the United States, for example, buyers can be prosecuted under the National Stolen Property Act only if the government can prove that they knew the item was stolen. Once a painting changes hands two or three times, buyers can plausibly (and sometimes honestly) claim that they thought it was legitimate.

Continue reading the rest of the story on Slate