Stolen masterpieces: Assessing the impact of artnapping


Share this content


Security Expert, Lina Kolesnikova, takes a deep dive into the realm of art theft, unravelling the associated risks and long term impacts of this criminal activity.

The theft of works of art makes headlines in press and is popularised in multiple movies and books.

As with any crime, theft, burglary, fraud and other variants make up an activity generally destructive for society. But, there might be more to it…

Theft of works of art is linked to several other criminal activities such as money laundering or the financing of criminal networks.

Beyond that, the stolen works of art can also be used as money, facilitating the exchange of certain goods and services on underground criminal markets.

There are clear indications of existence of established links between the theft of works of art and organised crime, tax evasion and the financing of terrorism.

Large underground networks gravitate around such activities.

Trade and trafficking of works of art is one of the most lucrative activities associated with organised crime. It is just behind drugs, arms and human trafficking.

There is evidence that suggests burglars often specifically target works of art, just like they might be going after and targeting some other types of high value assets and operations.

Theft, trade and trafficking such stolen art gets more and more sophisticated and, often, remains unappreciated.

Security experts believe that stolen artwork is far higher than official numbers show.

Among important factors, two stand out: An ever-growing prize for successful crimes, making art a bonanza and the aging of protection systems often deployed to protect valuable art assets in both public and private places.

Prices on the art market have been skyrocketing for years, making looted artwork even more valuable.

At the same time, security systems at museums, churches and in private collections have grown completely outdated compared to the massive progress of various techniques employed by criminals.

The same is true with personnel, as some people working in protection may be poorly trained/poorly paid.

This can be observed even for state-run services, with many countries having no special art theft units within local and national police services.

All of the above paves the way for the theft of art developing into adjacent areas, intermixing with other criminal activities.

A new twist: Artnapping

There is another type of crime connected to the theft of art, which is now on the rise – artnapping.

This is when criminals might prefer to extort ransoms from owners rather than resell the stolen treasures; well identified and well known works are often unsaleable both on the legal and illegal art markets, since their reappearance is closely monitored and could trigger inconveniences and significant risks for buyers.

Artnapping (a buzzword formed from art and kidnapping) is an illegal practice that consists of stealing a work of art from a museum, church or individual, with the aim of returning it to its owner for a ransom, without involving police.

Artnapping saves the thief from having to look for a receiver or a buyer and risking being caught.

The owner’s insurance company has an interest in paying the ransom if its amount is lower than the value of the work that it would have to reimburse to an owner in the opposite case.

According to an unwritten, and publicly denied rule, insurers would generally agree to pay up to 10% of the value, remaining happy for not having to reimburse the work of art in full.

Such business usually operates in the greatest secrecy and, as far as possible, without involving the police.

Often, the work of art which has historical and cultural value worth greater than its material value.

This is especially true for family assets which may be held in collections from one generation to another.

Upon successful operation, thieves get valuables. In most cases, however, they are not interested in the artwork itself, but the money.

On another side, victims usually have money and want these objects back.

In such a scenario, criminals use the same technique as in hostage negotiations: They can threaten to destroy the object if a ransom is not paid.

Some of the counter-techniques might also be drawn. However, monetising stolen art is not always the (only) objective. Thieves can also practice artnapping and use works of art as currency.

Artnapping is not always about theft. Another use case of artnapping is blackmailing owners of stolen objects.

This typically concerns objects acquired on the black market or even specifically targeted and ordered to criminals.

Obtaining an artwork in such a way makes the new owner dependent on those who know their name. And, that risk might materialise through criminals demanding a ransom for their silence.

Artnapping appears to be an interesting and mysterious phenomenon in the industry of crime.

It is so far insufficiently researched – and we don’t have much information as victims often keep a low profile and rarely recognise the fact of crime.

Moreover, perpetrators are not always prosecuted. For certain events related to works of art – consisting of their criminal “disappearance” and then a miraculous finding – it may be tempting to interpret them through the prism of the artnapping phenomenon and thus accept that the criminal act had actually occurred.

From time to time, we see speculations behind “suddenly returned” objects, but without any proof, it is difficult to say what had happened precisely.

There were speculations, for example, that we had an artnapping case with ‘The Scream’ and ‘Madonna’ by Edvard Munch stolen from the museum of Oslo in 2004 and found in 2006.

There were no official statements about this case, in such context. 

In 2009, the theft of ‘Olympia’ by Magritte (1948) was committed in broad daylight by two men (one of whom was armed) at Rue Esseghem in the house museum of the world-known Belgian surrealist painter.

Burglars neutralised staff and visitors and left with the oil painting of the master, with an approximate value of €800,000. In January 2012, against all odds, Olympia was found.

There are speculations that the painter’s widow paid a ransom.


Whether real theft or just a threat of it, artnapping is a complex activity sensitive to public exposure. Therefore, all interactions are usually done via trusted parties facilitating a connection between a criminal and a victim.

One of the key figures in an artnapping deal is, as in a hostage negotiation, a negotiator or intermediary.

We step into an area of speculation again, however.

These people do not put this vocation on their business cards or LinkedIn profiles. In the world of art, they are known and respected.

Like referees in some sports, people playing intermediatory roles could be almost anyone – lawyers, ex-police officers, investigators of insurance companies.

Money for terrorism

The use of proceeds from the trafficking of art to sponsor terrorism came to light in relation to such actions as a source of funding by various terrorist groups.

A former hostage in Syria, Italian journalist Domenico Quirico, described a vast system of smuggling of remains looted by Daesh and transported via Turkey and the Calabrian port of Gioia Tauro to Europe, the US, Russia and China, where the “treasures” could have enriched private collections.

In Italy, the public prosecutor’s office in Salerno even opened an investigation following revelations by the daily La Stampa about a major traffic of antiquities involving the ‘Ndrangheta and the Camorra.

Credibly, the first known case of artnapping connected to a terrorist organisation happened in 1976, when the IRA stole pictures from a collector with an attempt to resell them to the owner.

That particular situation did not play out well, however, as the IRA could not manage to achieve financial objectives.

IS brought it further and created a “natural resources” department that specifically focused on buried antiquities.

The department was also responsible for collecting taxes on the sale of antiquities and issuing looting permits for specific archaeological sites.

There was a suspicion voiced by French journalists that artnapping was used to fund the Brussels attacks in 2016. In July 2013, the Uccle Van Buuren Museum in Brussels was robbed.

It lost a series of remarkable paintings, including a masterpiece, ‘The Thinker’ by the Dutch painter Kees Van Dongen, a canvas valued at more than one million euros.

Over the next two years, perpetrators tried to obtain a ransom from an insurance company in exchange for the return of the works.

Behind these negotiations, which were interrupted without any result in May 2015, was Khalid El Bakraoui, one of the terrorists who was behind the attack on 22 March at the metro station, Maelbeek.

According to French journalists, an intermediary whom criminals believed to be a representative of the three insurance companies of the Uccle museum acting under mandate, was an undercover agent, a member of the Federal Police Special Units (CGSU).

At the end, the Van Buuren Museum was compensated in 2014. The destiny of the canvas remained non-uncovered.

Belgian Federal police never confirmed that it found the connection of his criminal activities with financing terrorist attacks in France (November 2015) and Belgium (March 2016).

Money for other activities

Beyond obvious criminal variants, trade and trafficking of art might be used by legitimate agencies for covert purposes of financing some of their operations.

However, we could expect that such activities do not deal with stolen art.

Receive the latest breaking news straight to your inbox