Money Laundering and Stolen Art

How organized criminals and terrorists purchase art and antiquities to launder money. Stolen art can be traded for a fraction of the true value.

Watching an episode of Burn Notice, the star Michael Weston comments on a crate of antiquities. He says that the madly fluctuating prices of antiquities make it easy for criminals to exchange cash for rare pieces of history from all over the world. I wondered if this was true or just something is thrown into a television program to make it more interesting.

Purchasing Artwork to Launder Money

It turns out, this is actually true. One major problem for criminals is what to do with all of their ill-gotten cash. Once they purchase an artifact, antiquity or piece of artwork, that cash becomes legitimized and laundered in essence, into an asset that gains value and can be sold at a later date with no questions asked. Whether purchasing legitimate art or hot artifacts and antiquities, these tangible assets can be used to launder cash into collectibles.

Using Stolen Art as a Tradeable Commodity

Stolen art, artwork that is stolen from a museum, gallery, or private home, can be traded or fenced in the underground world of organized crime. These trophy paintings cannot command the same value as if they were acquired legitimately. It’s like buying the proverbial expensive camera or television out of the back of someone’s truck. One knows it wasn’t acquired legally so the full retail price is not attainable. Criminals fence stole artwork at a fraction of its real art world market value.

So for example, in theory, if a criminal wanted to sell a stolen Vermeer they would not be able to ask for the legal market price which would be many millions of dollars. Probably, the asking price would be much lower, perhaps only a million dollars (US) or so, but for the art thief that is a free and clear million dollars and they are rid of a very hot piece of property.

Art Crime

In Art and Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World, edited by Noah Charney, there is an essay by law journalist Dafydd Nelson which talks about this subject matter in a more academic way. Nelson also reminds us that during times of economic hardship, fine art and antiquities retain their value, making them even more attractive as a way of money laundering for organized criminals.

Nelson has plenty of real-life examples of money laundering deals that have been discovered. For example, in March 2002 a painting by Goya and another painting by Tsuguharu Foujita were seized by US officials when a Spanish money launderer tried to use these valuable objects to settle a $10 million dollar drug debt.

This dark side of the art world still receives very little attention by the American media that is focused on the War on Terror in terms of suicide bombers, terrorist attacks, Al Qaeda, and Islamic extremists. The truth seems to be that terrorism and organized crime worldwide is in part funded by stolen art, artifacts, and antiquities.