According to the US Department of Justice and UNESCO, art theft is the third biggest criminal enterprise in the world, trailing only drugs and guns as the highest-grossing criminal trade of the past 40 years.
The art trade is the largest lawful unregulated business on the planet, and therefore hardly leaves any paper trail for detectives to follow. There are no transaction records, and no legal requirement to publicly list art sales. Figures for the art market are difficult to determine, but Christie’s and Sotheby’s turn over about $11-12 billion a year. In addition, a 2008 survey by ARTnews estimates that annual private art sales amount to $30 billion.
The amount of criminal income generated by art crime each year is around $6-8 billion, and the value of art and antiques stolen in the UK is around £300 million, second only to drug dealing. Despite the fact that around 50,000-100,000 works of art are stolen each year, in the United States there’s just one art crime officer for every 21 million people. This explains why only about 10% of stolen art is ever recovered.
One of the most startling things is how commonly art goes missing and how dealers and buyers turn a blind eye to stolen goods. Much of the stolen work make the rounds of the art world, and dealers often simply look the other way. Hundreds of fakes are hanging in museums around the world. Ultimately, the biggest victim is art itself.