There is no denying that art theft is steadily on the rise, now worth over $6 billion annually worldwide. Montreal, Quebec, now too is known for being a hotbed of art crime, alone worth $20 million annually and a portal for art thieves to transfer loot to major art markets around the world, particularly New York.
While Toronto is the locale for the country’s art market, Quebec is the only city in Canada to institute a department dedicated to fine art investigation. It was originally developed by Alain Lacoursière, due to his passion for art and detective expertise. He is credited for exploring the connection between art theft and Quebec’s operation of Hell’s Angels, and also for his instrumental role in art recovery due to a database he created called “Art Alert”, a means of communicating instantly with experts in all parts of the art world.
Toronto-based writer Joshua Knelman explores the nature of art crime in Montreal and around the globe in his book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art. He suggests that the problem inherently stems from the norms of art market transactions, a world based on handshakes and secrecy and therefore questionable legal ownership and title. This ultimately trickles down to art museums, where, in order to maintain relationships with collectors and donors, museums will often fail to report thefts in their institutions.
Knelman’s observation is a sensible way to explain the appeal of art crime –a high payoff with low risk, especially if the institution keeps the crime hidden from public knowledge. Perhaps this is even better understood when we look at the wide attention received for those thefts that have been publicized. Robert Korzinek, fine art and insurance expert at Hincox explains, “art crime is seen as a sexy crime so widely reported in the papers: an exciting heist makes a great news story.” With great attention given to such high profile crimes and the ease with which thieves can enter and take their desired items due to lack of security, museums have now become an idealized target for thefts, therefore institutions prefer not to advertise stolen artworks from their collections.
No matter what the reason, it is clear that the rise of art crime has become a global phenomenon. Quebec’s response to the problem has resulted in significant recovery, just as Los Angele’s art theft squad has been successful in recovering over $80 million worth of art over the past 15 years. It is the diligence of these art investigation units that will ultimately detract from the allure and sexiness of organized art crime and keep artworks in the hands of their rightful owners.
Sources: The Globe and Mail, The Art Newspaper, and Toronto.com.