Stolen Art Recovery
The Process

Art theft is the stealing of high-profile art. This is usually done for the purpose of resale or ransom; occasionally thieves are also commissioned by dedicated private collectors. Stolen art is also often used between criminals in an underworld banking system as collateral for drug and weapons deals, or to barter for those items.

Many thieves are motivated by the fact that reasonably valuable art pieces are worth millions of dollars and weigh only a few kilograms, at most. Transportation is also trivial, assuming the thief is willing to inflict some damage to the painting by cutting it off the frame and rolling it up into a tube carrier. While most high-profile museums have extremely tight security, many places hosting multimillion dollar works have disproportionately poor security measures.

A likely scenario in famous art theft is "theft for hire" or similar situations in which buyers have already been found. Some buyers may enjoy possessing famous art secretly. Fossil theft is an easier form of purchase as identification techniques are not as well established as art theft.

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Because antiquities are often regarded by the country of origin as national treasures, there are numerous cases where artworks (often displayed in the acquiring country for decades) have become the subject of highly charged and political controversy. One prominent example is the case of the Elgin Marbles, which were removed from Greece to the British Museum in 1816 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. Many different Greek governments have maintained that removal was tantamount to theft.

A highlight of Early Netherlandish painting was stolen several centuries prior to the later theft of two panels from the Ghent Altarpiece in 1934: Hans Memling's Last Judgment altarpiece was commissioned in 1467, and was to become the central art piece in a de'Medici chapel in Florence. The ship transporting the painting in 1473 was looted by a "pious" pirate, offering the painting to the Gdansk cathedral. Although authenticity is undoubted, the story is plainly documented, and the now-priceless painting is one of Memling's greatest masterpieces, some catalogues of the painter's work scarcely mention it.

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Perhaps the most famous case of art theft occurred on August 21, 1911, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had once called for the Louvre to be "burnt down," came under suspicion; he was arrested and put in jail. Apollinaire pointed to his friend Pablo Picasso, who was also brought in for questioning, but both were later exonerated.

The Nazi plundering of artworks was carried out by the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg fr die Besetzen Gebiete). In occupied France, the Jeu de Paume Art Museum in Paris was used as a central storage and sorting depot for looted artworks from museums and private art collections throughout France pending distribution to various persons and places in Germany.