Art Crime.

Author:Barrett, John A., Jr.

John E. Conlin, Art Crime (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 1994) 322 pp.

Art crime is big business. It is estimated that thieves steal over $1 billion worth of art each year.(1) Combining these losses with additional losses from other types of art crime, such as fraud, forgery, vandalism, and lost productivity in the workplace due to violence arising in connection with art crime, makes art crime the second largest international criminal endeavor--only drug smuggling involves more money.(2) John Conklin's Art Crime attempts to bring a framework to the study of art crime.

Professor Conklin defines "art" as those types of objects typically displayed in a museum of fine arts.(3) Obviously, this narrow definition ignores a number of types of art that are also subject to criminal behavior.(4) "Art crimes" are defined as "criminally punishable acts that involve works of art."(5) However, Professor Conklin frequently strays from this strict definition by giving examples of various types of behavior that, although not criminal, some would argue should be criminal.(6)

This book is at its best when describing how the art world works, the various types of art crimes, as well as specific art crimes that have been committed. Overall, Conklin's numerous anecdotes and insights into the art world make Art Crime an enjoyable book that is sure to educate all but the most knowledgeable members of that mysterious world.

Unfortunately, the depth of analysis in Conklin's book is inherently limited by the paucity of research on this subject. This lack of research forces the author to rely on news articles and other reports about particular art crimes in lieu of studies about the subject as a whole.(7) The result is a compendium of anecdotes regarding behavior in the art world and types of art crimes. Professor Conklin concedes that he has not prepared a cohesive theory of art crime, in part due to lack of available data and in part due to the variety of art crimes.(8) However, he hopes that drawing attention to the scope and types of art crime will stimulate further research.(9)

The weaknesses of this book are its lack of statistical information, which precludes a meaningful understanding of art crime as a whole (and of particular types of art crime); and the superficial treatment of the applicable legal standards, which leaves the reader with a sense of hopelessness as to what can be done to combat the sociological forces causing the proliferation of art crimes. In fact, many of Conklin's suggestions for curbing art crime seem unrealistically naive after reading the rest of the book. The first weakness is not the fault of the author, given the lack of information available in this area of inquiry.(10) In fact, he frequently notes the need for additional data and study in this area and acknowledges the difficulties presented by a lack of meaningful statistics.(11) The second weakness may be nothing more than the author's choice as to what the book should focus on, but various legal scholars have addressed the flaws in current laws pertaining to art crime and have suggested ways in which these laws can be improved.(12) If Conklin had chosen to examine these laws more closely, he might have found not only better potential solutions for curbing art crime but also a better understanding of the sociological structure of art crime. A final problem with Art Crime is that Conklin, as a sociologist, tends to focus on organizational structures, which, when coupled with the lack of data in this area, leads to a simplistic, common sense treatment of certain subject matters, such as how thieves steal art.(13)

Conklin begins with a discussion of how art obtains value. Next, he covers various types of art crime and then discusses art vandalism. In the final chapter, he recommends ways to reduce art crime. With limited exceptions, the book is an exhaustive collection of anecdotes describing various art crimes, from the theft of several Dutch Masters paintings from Amherst College(14) to illicit trade in Zuni war god statues.(15) Current laws and international conventions affecting trade in art and art crime are handled in a cursory manner. Although Conklin points out that there are few convictions, sentences are light and some countries make "laundering" stolen artwork relatively easy,(16) he rarely looks at the laws at a level of detail that would permit one to evaluate where such laws could be improved. When he refers to the legal treatment applied to a dispute, he tends to focus on the outcome of the case, rather than the legal standard being applied. Conklin prefers to discuss the general behavior one encounters in both the legitimate and illegitimate art world.(17)


    In Chapter One, Conklin explains how art obtains value. According to Conklin, art has both economic and cultural value.

    As proof that art has cultural value, Conklin uses the example of an icon of St. Irene stolen from a Greek Orthodox church in Queens, New York, in 1991. The parishioners were overwhelmed by the return of the stolen icon, even though it had been stripped of its gold, silver, and jewels valued at over $800,000.(18) Thus, the congregation attributed a cultural or spiritual value to the work of art independent of the economic value of the adornments previously attached to it.(19)

    In addressing the issue of economic value, Conklin argues that the value of art depends more on a "shared belief in value rather than on the law of supply and demand."(20) Although economists may dispute this claim (because a change in the shared belief in value could be seen as a change in demand), it is clear that a significant increase or decrease in public confidence in the value of art can dramatically affect prices. As a result, auction houses, dealers, and others involved in the art world have developed strategies to maintain public confidence in the value of art, and thereby the prices of art.(21)

    Conklin lists a number of factors that affect the economic value of art. These include the artist that produced the piece, collectability,(22) freedom of enjoyment,(23) the perception of art as a good investment, and the distribution network.

    Perhaps the most interesting of these factors is the artists themselves. During the Renaissance, people began to perceive artists as "creative geniuses," and as a result, the public started giving artists individual recognition.(24) This belief, that great artists are particularly gifted, has led to people judging art more by who produced it than by its intrinsic aesthetic quality.(25) This premise is evidenced by the change in value of a work of art that has been reattributed to a lesser or greater artist.(26) Obviously, this is in part due to art's function as a potential investment vehicle and people's perception that art created by a well known artist will maintain a higher value.

    Conklin notes that because of the potential change in value that can occur after a reattribution, there can be significant pressure on historians and critics "not to reattribute works to" lesser known artists and that "museums have occassionally rejected or ignored reattributions by even highly esteemed scholars."(27) Conklin, however, does not indicate the frequency of such occurrences, nor does he examine whether the failure to reattribute or to recognize a reattribution has any criminal implications. On the one hand, failure to reattribute a work or rejecting a reattribution based on such pressures would appear to be a fraud on potential buyers or the viewing public. In the context of a sale, significant damage can easily be shown (the potential change in price), and the buyer is almost certainly relying to some degree on the attribution (as opposed to the piece's aesthetic qualities) in buying any old, extremely expensive work of art. However, given the inherent uncertainty involved with the attribution process,(28) "fraud" by a party choosing not to reattribute would be nearly impossible to prove.

    One could also argue that the buyer at some level knows or should know about the uncertainties of attribution anyway. Certainly, when museums purchase art they are fully aware of such risks. With regard to museums or auction houses ignoring reattributions by noted scholars, one can argue that the museum should be required to disclose any such controversy. The problem, of course, is when a controversy arises--does it occur when one crackpot announces a reattribution or does a controversy concerning reattribution require a consensus among a group of scholars?

    Also of interest is that people buy art based on the general perception that art is a good investment.(29) However, a number of studies have shown that this is not the case.(30) In fact, most art has no real resale value. However, the fact that people perceive art as a good investment attracts more people (and money) to the world of art.(31) Not surprisingly, museums add value to works of art by legitimating the artists and enhancing their reputation.(32) Additionally, museums have historically competed for some of the best pieces, thereby driving up prices in the market as a whole.(33)

    Less obvious (and more questionable) is how the distributional network affects economic value. Participants are art dealers, auction houses, and scholars/critics. Dealers try to educate their potential customers to increase awareness about art and the desire to buy it.(34) Additionally, scarcity helps increase value, so some dealers try to restrict the output of artists whose works they display.(35) Dealers also face the challenge of pricing art high enough so that it appears desirable, but not so high as to be out of reach to the potential consumer.(36) Conklin discusses a common practice of dealers of giving discounts to prominent collectors.(37) Although at first glance this appears no different from procedures employed by merchants in other lines of business, having a prominent collector own a...

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