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A Rise in Art Crime

An empty frame hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, important art and cultural sites around the world sit unprotected, and thieves, looters, and smugglers are taking advantage of the lack of security. When government lockdowns started going into effect, law enforcement was drawn away from museums, archaeological sites, and religious sites around the world to focus their efforts elsewhere. During this time, these places that carry valuable and important historical, cultural, and religious items and artwork are being targeted.

At the end of March (on Van Gogh’s Birthday, March 30th), it was reported that the Singer Laren Museum in Laren, that held The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring by Vincent Van Gogh (pictured below), was broken into and this important piece stolen by thieves. The painting was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum while on loan from the Groninger Museum. This was the only work of art that was taken, so authorities believe it was specifically targeted, with the thief breaking through two glass doors in order to reach it. To make matters more complicated, the painting was also never officially appraised prior to the theft.

This isn’t the only art theft that has occurred in Europe either. Christ Church College at the University of Oxford had an estimated $12 million worth of Old Master paintings stolen from a gallery in mid-March. There is hope, however, that these paintings will resurface. It is estimated that around half of stolen artwork from museums resurfaces eventually and is found.

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring  by Vincent Van Gogh

In the Middle East and Northern Africa, looters are taking advantage of lax security and are plundering archaeological sites with the aim of selling their ill-gotten wares on the black market. Authorities monitoring these sites have seen a rise in social media and forum posts online about looted artifacts and the people holding them looking for potentially interested buyers. With looting, it is important to know that not only are the looted artifacts themselves valuable to a culture or country’s history, their setting or context in relation to other artifacts and features of the site is equally valuable historical and cultural information to an archaeologist. This information is lost when an artifact is abruptly removed from its location in situ. Additionally, other important parts of the site unknowingly get damaged or are thrown away if deemed unimportant for potential buyers, further damaging the integrity of the archaeological site.

View of a looted archaeological site with damage throughout.

It is also equally important to consider the wider motives of people who turn to these activities. Often, they have no other choice. Their lives have been upended by the pandemic and they need another source of income to support their families. Looting of archaeological sites often increases during times of crisis. Other examples include the Iraq War and the Arab Spring. There are seasonal influences as well, and being outside in extreme heat during the Summer months is a health risk. The COVID-19 pandemic happened to coincide with spring months.

In addition to theft and looting affecting the art world during the COVID-19 pandemic, forgeries are being created to be sold on the market. Just this week, it was reported two trunks of fake Mesopotamian artifacts were recently discovered and confiscated at a British airport. The pieces, suspected of being looted, were handed over to curators at the British Museum who quickly identified them as fakes because of the overly-complete range of artifacts and unsuccessful attempts at recreating cuneiform. The method of creation of the artifacts was also a giveaway: authentic Mesopotamian artifacts would have been dried in the sun, while these pieces were fired at high temperatures, indicating modern kilns. These trunks were luckily confiscated, but it is likely that other forged artifacts that were not caught will resurface amongst museum and private collections around the world.

It is likely that we will see a rise in forgeries and looted artifacts surfacing on the art market due to this rise in art world crime during this global health crisis, and while authorities are working to curb this influx, it is important to always consider provenance, or the artwork or object’s paper trail and history, before purchasing new items to add to collections.



( Not modified or edited. Artist: Bashar Tabbah

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