The damage caused by art theft is immense: material and psychological.

But, they are often classified as a minor priority for the law enforcement authorities, and the recovery rate is correspondingly low. It is best to secure yourself as collector.


  • ​Most art theft happens not in museums, but in burglaries in private houses and art treaties.
  • The greatest chances of recovery are collectors with a complete photographic documentation of his collection.
  • If one is uncertain as a collector in the purchase of objects, whether it is thieves, databases such as the Art-Loss offer fast research and certification.
  • With appropriation art there is so far neither for artists nor in other countries a clear legal position for artists as collectors.

The damage caused by art theft is immense: material and psychological

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July 2014. Two students in Nuremberg celebrated the victory of the national team at the World Cup. They were already drunk amidst the German National Museum.

They climbed onto scaffolding, entered the building, wandered through the exhibition rooms and take a painting by Emil Nolde off the wall, estimated at €900,000.

They were arrested in the courtyard of the museum, and were later dealt with as a stupid boy's prank.

October 2012. During the jubilee exhibition of the Kunsthal Gallery, Rotterdam, 7 masterpieces by Monet, Matisse, Picasso and others were stolen.

At first it seemed as if the thieves had been extremely knowledgeable. It took only a few minutes to get the prized artworks in their possession and escape undetected.

Three months later they were arrested in Bucharest. It turns out that it was an ordinary Romanian burglar gang who did not know what treasures they had captured. And above all, they did not how to make money from them.

The works were hidden in the house of the mother one of the main members, after the arrest of her son she burns the pictures to protect him. Irrecoverable art, worth hundreds of millions, goes on fire.

April 2011. Stéphane Breitwieser is in court in Strasbourg. The Alsace is known as a notorious art syndicate, which in the 1990s had stolen more than 240 works from museums, castles and art treaties.

With them, Breitwiesser established a kind of private museum, he did not want to sell it.

Once he landed in jail, he released the articles of his collection, after which he described his behavior as a romantic-compulsive passion. Breitwieser has since been released, but again the police found stolen art objects in his apartment.


thieves and art theft

These three cases of spectacular art theft have come to the public in recent years. Each one is unique, but at the same time all bear typical features that make up this particular form of crime.

Most art theft takes the form of burglaries, with private households and artist studios being equally affected, whereas museum thefts hardly ever take place.

Although there are art-specialized burglar groups, as rare as ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ turning out to be a real time story, most of the time it’s individual actors who have no idea of art or how to shift them for profit.

It is often the case that works gain damages due to the poor handling of the perpetrators.


Eric Wolzenburg, who has been responsible for the Allianz Kunstversicherung since 2014, has had similar experiences:

"Half of our insurance cases relate to burglary and theft. The most tempting for the thieves are: gold, silver jewelry and high-quality watches at high resale value."

The best protection against art theft is first-class mechanical fuses on windows and doors. Depending on the value and risk situation, do consider the installation of intruder alarm systems where necessary.

If you want to protect your collection, at least in a precautionary manner, a special art insurance is recommended instead of normal household contents insurance.

The best protection against art theft is first-class mechanical fuses on windows and doors

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In this case, the value of the individual objects can be adjusted each year - both upwards and downwards, dependent on the market development.

Even if the burglaries are carried out professionally, as in the case of the Rotterdamer Kunsträuber or the gang, which stole nine Expressionist paintings from the Berlin Bridge Museum in 2002, the re-use often becomes stupid.

This leads to a five times higher arrest rate compared to normal stolen property.

Police pursue their investigations by maintaining a good relationship with the art trade and capturing an e-mail distribution list associated to sale of the type of artwork immediately.

Other criminal officers will display advertisements in specialist publications where stolen items are depicted to protect traders and private collectors from suspected forgery.


documentation and art theft

Collectors must make sure they produce the most comprehensive documentation of their collection.

Illustrations of the works, precise technical data and a complete provenance help make up the records.

Wolzenburg also recommends a “complete inventory and current market valuations”.

However there should also be a certain restraint in the presentation.

You should not want to show and tell everyone everything, because there are also opportunities for thieves.

The most difficult thing to do is to solve the cases in which someone, like the Alsatian Stéphane Breitwieser, is stealing in general or stealing art exclusively for his own pleasure.


As important it is to protect oneself against art theft, it is more important for the collector not to pick up any faulty goods.

In order to avoid dubious origins, it is better to use commercial art galleries, or reputable auction houses that stand by their name and expertise for their origin.

The same applies to the rapidly growing digital market.

Specialized online marketplaces like Artnet or Auctionet, which mostly cooperate with traditional art market system, are more preferable to smaller, more unknown providers.

If you want to be even more secure, it is recommended to consult databases.

The most extensive art database is the international Art Loss Register launched in 1991 by auction houses and insurance companies. It contains over 300,000 lost or stolen art works - from antiquities to contemporary artworks.

Each private individual can submit a review request from Art-Loss. You fill in an online form with data on the work, a photograph and the payment of a one-time fee of £10 per item.

The global cost of art and antiquated theft is at £3.7 billion annually

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A location fee of 5% on the value of the work of art is charged if the registered work is found, with an optional 20% recovery fee.

If there are no matches between the requested work and the stored data, you will get an ALR certificate certifying that the artwork is not registered with Art-Loss.

Art-Loss, a privately-owned London-based company, recently published sobering estimates that only 15% of all higher-value works of art (with estimates of more than £50,000) re-emerge over a 25-year period.

For paintings or antiques with a lower value, the rate is even lower.

This is mainly due to the fact that pressure of persecution by the authorities of the individual countries is not too high.

Cases of art theft has not been a high criminal priority in most countries, unless it is a question of spectacular museum robberies of public interest.

In The Art Newspaper, a British police officer estimated the global cost of art and antiquated theft at £3.7 billion annually in 2013, calling for a reconnaissance and recovery rate of only 1.5%.

More and more private companies are taking advantage of these rates for commission rates of up to 30 percent of the value for the recovery of works of art.


war crime and art theft

Under the guise of war thieves are offered an opportunity to artifice in great style. German museums, auction houses and art dealers are still busy with the aftermath of the Second World War, which witnessed probably the greatest art theft in history.

In order to operate the search with a more systematic and centrally organized operation, the publicly financed and freely accessible Lostart internet database has been set up in Germany in recent years.

It has collected around 100,000 objects of cultural heritage, which have been moved, displaced or – especially from Jewish owners - as a consequence of the Second World War, and provides a useful aid for collectors in the classification and review of works.

Today, it is mainly stolen cultural assets from Iraq and Syria, which enter the market due to the war. Museum patrols and grave excavations have led to a regular flood of antiquities and find many customers in many places.

Anyone who acquires such objects of doubtful origin, even if the provenance through auction catalogs of 'private collection' are rightfully indicated, should be clear that in Iraq and Syria the trade of antiques has been prohibited since 1906 and UNESCO since 1970.

This makes the acquisition morally problematic, but it is not legal.

For this reason, Germany is still regarded as one of the main centers for the illegal trade in stolen cultural goods. In order to change this, the Federal Government is currently working on the amendment of the Act on the Protection of Cultural Heritage.

Accordingly, future evidence of origin will be required for all traded cultural goods.

Objects with a “gray” background would thus become virtually unsaleable. The collector can continue to possess it, but it will not be released - legally.


But what about intellectual art theft? If one acquires a work of art which a secondary artist demands on their copyright?

Such copyright issues are becoming more and more pressing in the Internet age, in which the digital technologies enable entirely new forms of appropriation.

They even created an independent contemporary art form, Appropriation Art, of which the most famous artist is Jeff Koons.

Their method is to orient themselves to the works of other artists and to make a sort of remix, similar to a DJ, who sampled a well-known musical title.

In the world of art, opinions are shared: for some, this is an innovative, contemporary strategy, for the others these works have the rhetoric of plagiarism.

Copyright issues are becoming more and more pressing in the Internet age

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A collector is safe if the author of the work of art has given his consent to the appropriation. This is usually the reaction to the critical or rebellious impetus of the appropriationists.

If the “exploited” artist remains silent, the chances are good because there is no clear legal situation in Germany or in other countries.

If, however, the conflict arises, the court must make a complicated individual case decision taking into account all the arguments cited in the spectrum of freedom of art and copyright.

Recently in Patrick Cariou's complaint against Richard Prince, one of the most successful representatives of Appropriation Art, attracted attention in the US.

The photographer had claimed that Prince took pictures from ‘Carious 2000’ without permission in the Gagosian Gallery book ‘Yes Rasta’.

The judge ordered the destruction of the five still unsold Prince pictures from the exhibition. In the second hearing, however, this judgment was revised.

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