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The trade in stolen cultural property is lucrative business, seeped in a romanticism that is perpetuated by popular culture. Often linked to organised crime by international authorities, Interpol and UNESCO have estimated that black market trade in stolen cultural property has approximately a US $6 billion annual turnover. This figure is difficult to substantiate though because it is an illegal trade outside the standard rules of corporate accountability. Statistics issued by all international and government organizations also rely on individuals or institutions reporting the art crime to the relevant authorities, therefore these figures are also only estimates of a wider trend. This provides an interesting counter point to the legitimate art market, though occasionally these two intersect, such as when auction houses or dealers are discovered to be selling works with dubious provenance.

This duality within the art world of the legitimate and illegitimate buying and selling of cultural property can also be found within the operations of the black market itself where is trade in stolen cultural pieces has spawned the counter business of insurance assessment, international law enforcement, security and recovery. These parallel business profit, exist or receive funding because of the illegal trade in stolen goods. Therefore the true economic impact of theft from cultural institutions is difficult gauge. Aside from the quantifiable economic impact of art theft there is also the immeasurable cultural and social impact of the loss of the work and the legal implications of provenance and repatriation if a work reappears on the market at a future date.

Although the majority of art circulating on the black market have been stolen from private collections the case studies I will be examining focus on recent situations where art institutions have been the victims of targeted theft. Because works in public collections are well documented and studied as well as existing in the public eye there is both market strategies involved in selling these works once stolen and cultural implications of these works illegally transitioning from public to private collections

Case Studies

• The looting of the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad in 2003.

• The theft of Edvard Munch's "Scream" and "Madonna" from the Oslo Museum in 2004.

• The recently discovered theft of 221 pieces from The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg in 2006.



Interpol website
Gateway to Interpol’s information on international art theft. This includes statistics of reported art thefts and a database of missing, looted or stolen works of art.


This section includes regularly updated statistics of reported cultural theft as submitted by various participating countries.


United Nations General Assembly Resolution of November 1993
Return Or Restitution Of Cultural Property To The Countries Of Origin


United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2004/34
Protection Against Trafficking in Cultural Property


The Hague Convention, 14 May 1954
Convention for the Protection of 
Cultural Property In the Event of Armed Conflict

FBI United States Federal Bureau of Investigation Art Theft Program.
Includes details on current cases, international theft notices and recoveries, museum security resources and a link to a national database of stolen work

Australian Institute of Criminology
This site documents a conference held in Landmark Parkroyal, Sydney on the 
2-3 December 1999 to discuss contemporary issues related to art crime. The purpose of the conference was to educate the art market in aspects of fraud, forgery, theft and recovery. The conference papers also included discussion on art being used as a vehicle for money laundering, authentication and copyright issues as well as technology and archiving practices that%

Spoils of War International Newsletter
This is an online publication that had published 6 issues between 1995 – 1998 examining war looting and its impact on cultural property and the international art market. Issue 5 examines the International Law for the restitution of art works looted during periods of war and occupation as well as profiling the Society To Prevent Trade in Stolen Art, which is an international group based in Washington DC of collectors, specialists, investors, lawyers and law enforcement who offer education programmes and resource services to assist individuals and institutions who have been victims of art fraud or theft.

The Guardian Digital Edition - Special Report: Art Theft
This a collection of Guardian stories reporting on art theft from 2002 – 2006 collated on a single page with links to full text articles.

The Baghdad Museum Project
This website is tracking the identification and gradual process of returning recovered art objects from the 2003 looting.

The National Museum of Iraq
The Museum’s website has a section dedicated to the impact that the 2003 looting had on the collection and the function of the museum.

The Hermitage Museum
The Hermitage Museum has recently added a press release to the website revealing details of the theft of their collection.

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