.On the Museum Security List appeared an online version of an interview with former FBI arts crime agent Robert Wittman published in 'Art & Antiques Magazine' which its author Jonathan Lopez states that "Mr Wittman thoroughly debunked some of the more fanciful theories regarding the methods and motives behind art theft that one sees floated by certain individuals". Ton Cremers remarked that it is:
Very good to read that Wittman demystifies (sic) the role of organized crime and art theft. There are too few instances of involvement of organized crime (apart from the role of Italian organized crime and tombaroli). Yet, again and again one can read in interviews that art theft is an organized crime specialty.
This comes down again to the rather broad scope of this thing called "art crime". Cremers is talking about Museum Security issues, art taken from known collections. It seems to me the clandestine digging over of archaeological sites to "recover" saleable bits and pieces is a different kettle of fish.
Certainly it is not just in the case of the tombaroli that we see a potential connection between archaeological looting and organized crime. In the case of eastern Europe there is a clear coincidence in the rise of the bulk trade of antiquities to foreign markets and the development of organized criminal activity on the collapse of political systems and economies in the wake of the dismantling of the Soviet Bloc. The appearance of this material on the western markets is falsely portrayed by western dealers as due to the "surfacing" of material kept in "old collections" forced underground before 1989 by the old antiquity preservation laws. They fail to acknowledge that the reform of these laws only took place well after the material had begun to appear on external markets. What had changed was the possibilities of those with a certain type of "business connections" to get the stuff out of the country without it being stopped. It is from this group of individuals that the supplies of material have been reaching western markets.
While a seller might get away with putting a few dugup ancient coins in a padded envelope, tucked in a piece of cardboard or otherwise disguised as something else and writing "collectors' supplies" (or whatever) on the customs form, when more than several kilogrammes of metal detected finds are involved, the problems are more acute. They are a little more noticeable. So how to get them through customs when many of the source countries have legislation forbidding such exports? Obviously it helps if the smuggler belongs to some group which has "connections" in the right places to get a blind eye turned.
It provokes thought that a writer for a US arts and antiques magazine might be concerned to dismiss the issue of the connections between the trade and foreign organized crime. Mr Lopez therefore asked Witman:
From time to time I’ve been told that most of the world’s biggest art heists are carried out by organized crime syndicates, who then use the stolen works as collateral to finance drug deals, arms trafficking or even acts of terrorism. I don’t recall seeing this system of underworld finance described in your book.The answer was that "there are a lot of people who make things up to get their names in the paper". Wittman states that thieves are not stealingpictures (nota bene) to trade them back and forth as some kind of financial leverage to each other, though there may be isolated cases of this happening. The reason why this is the case is that the "street value of a stolen painting is nothing". As Wittman says:
The art of art theft is not in the stealing. It’s in the selling. You can sell cocaine on a street corner. A stolen Brueghel, you can’t [...] The easiest sales occur in cases of pilfering, which is a different category of crime from armed robbery. When you have an insider, someone like a museum guard or a janitor, moving things around in storage cases and pocketing a couple items, in some instances things like that might get sold to a partner in the trade, a dealer, who knows that he has a market to sell into..
With an armed robbery, where the circumstances of the crime are public knowledge and the artworks are immediately recognizable, making a sale is much more difficult.
Wittman: Ransoms and rewards can be one way to profit from a big museum robbery. Also [...], some thieves are smart enough to know that they can use these artworks as a get-out-of-jail-free card for other crimes they’ve committed, bargaining for a reduced sentence. But basically there’s no way to reintroduce these things into the legitimate marketplace. If you bring a stolen Rembrandt to Christie’s or Sotheby’s, it will be seized. So if you’re trying to sell it, you’re limited to the criminal market, where the works will be worth, at best, 10 percent of their open-market value. And that’s only if you can find a buyer...
Of course the sellers of freshly dug-up antiquities which nobody has seen before they "surface" (from "underground") on the market is that much easier. Questions about missing provenance can be brazened out, indeed as we have seen, many collectors really could not care less about where the items come from.
The art of antiquities theft too quite clearly "is in the selling". While there is no buyer, a lump of stone or corroded bronze is just that. Where there are however people willing to part with cash for saleable ancient items without asking too many questions, then the theft of this material from the archaeological record and its illegal export to more lucrative foreign markets will continue to be commercially viable. Wittman is quite clear, in the case of "art crime", it is knowing that there is a market to sell into that encourages the pilfering. In the case of portable antiquities, then, it is the dealers and collectors who indiscrimately buy material, no questions asked, who are co-responsible for the looting that ensues. And, despite the protests of those in the "art trade" in general, there is every reason to think that somewhere along the chain of busibness relationships there are links with law breakers including those involved in organized crime networks.