Modigliani's 'La Femme a L'Aventail,' stolen from the Musée d'Art Moderne
Without triggering a single alarm, a hooded thief smashed open a window of the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris last week and went on an extraordinary looting spree. Before disappearing into the night, the intruder stole five exquisite paintings, including works by Matisse and Modigliani as well as Picasso's cubist masterpiece "Dove with Green Peas." Experts valued the looted canvases at as much as $124 million.
It's been described as the art heist of the century. But no criminal mastermind was required here. It turns out that the museum had been about as secure as a woodshed. The alarm system had been malfunctioning for almost two months, and while the museum had ordered replacement parts, they had not yet arrived. It also appears that the museum's guards may have been napping-or at least were remarkably inattentive. While cameras filmed the thief pilfering the works, it wasn't until the next morning that someone actually discovered the theft.
For dedicated observers of art crime, news of the caper-and the lax security—was surprisingly unsurprising. While paintings have become some of the most valuable items on the planet, many museums have not done enough to protect their collections, and art crime has developed into one of the world's largest criminal enterprises. The trafficking of looted paintings and sculptures is estimated to be a $6 billion industry—with more than 50,000 heists occurring annually—and organized crime syndicates now regularly trade in stolen art.
Part of the explanation lies in the soaring value of fine art. Even in today's sluggish economy, prices for Van Goghs and Manets have been skyrocketing. A few weeks ago, a Picasso sold for a whopping $106.5 million, setting the world record for any work of art ever sold at auction. For the same price, the buyer of the Picasso could have acquired the tech start-up Foursquare—recently valued at $100 million—and had enough money left over to buy a sprawling beach house. These hefty price tags drive art thievery.
Hollywood has painted a picture of the art thief as glamorous, besuited Thomas Crowns, pilfering art for the thrill and challenge of it. But in the real world, it's a much less charming affair. Art crooks don't wear black jumpsuits; they don't stage elaborate robberies. In fact, most museum crooks are second-rate thugs that steal art because it packs so much value into such a compact and portable package.
Still, many institutions act as if they're immune to crime. Earlier this year, a thief stole a volume of Picasso sketches from the Picasso Museum in Paris, and it turned out that the museum did not have an alarm system or even cameras in the gallery where the sketches were displayed.
To be sure, security is expensive. A full roster of guards can eat up half of a museum's operating budget—and that doesn't include the cost of high-tech motion detectors and electronic keys. A small institution can spend more than $1 million a year on security services. The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. pays out almost $70 million annually to protect its collection, and even that might not be enough. A 2007 government report found that the Smithsonian did not have enough guards to respond to alarms, and someone had managed to sneak some mammalian fossils out of one of the galleries.
Museums also suffer from an art-security Catch-22: By making it easy for the public to experience great art, they make it easier for crooks to steal it. And when institutions don't provide an intimate, nose-to-the-canvas environment, visitors complain. When thieves pilfered Edvard Munch's masterwork "The Scream," they left behind a note that said "Thanks for the poor security." After the heist, the Munch Museum in Oslo turned their institution into an art-world Fort Knox, with metal detectors and an X-ray machine. The press dubbed the building Fortress Munch, and some art-lovers grumbled, saying that they couldn't appreciate the masterpieces because of the thick, protective glass.
But for all the theft, it's not easy to make money on art crime. It's nearly impossible to reintroduce stolen works into the legitimate market; almost every major auction house uses international databases to make sure that they don't sell hot canvases. Nor will a crook find much success selling the stolen art to a Dr. No or Mr. Big. It's a familiar trope: a painting-obsessed collector who snatches up stolen works to display in his secret hideaway. But it's also a myth. While art-lovers will occasionally purchase items with weak provenance—and a crook might put a looted Hopper on his wall to impress his buddies—law enforcement has never found any evidence of a dedicated collector buying looted paintings. It's not worth the risk.
There are nevertheless ways to profit from art theft. Some organized-crime syndicates will use looted paintings as collateral in underworld drug deals. Others attempt to turn the canvases into political pawns, trading works for prisoners or peace deals. One professional art thief managed to convert an Old Master into a judicial bargaining chip: In 1974, Myles Connor filched a Rembrandt from a museum and arranged for its return a year later in exchange for a reduced sentence for a different art crime.
Crooks will also try and ransom art back to its owners. And collectors will often offer sizable rewards. Two men dressed as police officers swiped three Rembrandts and a Vermeer from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 in what's believed to be the largest art theft in American history, and the museum has long advertised a $5 million reward—the largest ever offered by a private institution—for the missing masterpieces.
As for the Paris heist, there's good reason to believe that the looted paintings will eventually be returned. While stolen art rarely resurfaces—some estimates are as low as 7%—the recovery rates for well-known paintings are higher because the works are so difficult to sell and so troublesome to keep. No one knows, of course, how a recovery might go down. It could be the result of a criminal investigation; it could be a dramatic sting. The museum might even get lucky, and the paintings will come back as easily as they were stolen, with an oblivious thug bringing one of the canvases to an auction house for an appraisal.
But whatever happens, our culture suffers when thieves steal masterpieces. Art institutions can—and should—do more to protect that heritage. As an art detective once told me: "You can replace a Cadillac. But when art is stolen, it's stolen from humanity."
Mr. Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of "The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft."