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Black market for

  • Erin Thompson

Arena in which artworks stolen from museums or private collectors or looted from archaeological sites are bought and sold or used for other purposes contrary to law (in contrast to the legal Art Market). The black market for art can also be defined to encompass sales of fake artwork (see Forgery) and artworks that have been banned for reasons of their erotic, political, or other content.

Art thieves often take advantage of collections of relatively low value where the loss of individual artworks will not be easily detected, such as private collections with inadequate record-keeping systems, infrequently inventoried museum storage facilities, or libraries, which might not notice the removal of single illustrated pages from rare books. In these cases, the stolen art immediately re-enters the legal art market, since the risk of the original owner identifying it in time to prevent a sale is low. The stolen art is sometimes provided with forged Provenance papers giving a false ownership history to disguise the theft.

The economics of the black market operate differently for stolen masterpieces, generally high value, easily identifiable artworks, whose loss is immediately noticed. For example, in 1990 two thieves impersonating police officers overpowered the night guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA, and stole thirteen artworks worth more than $500 million, including iconic paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. In such cases, thieves are unlikely to find willing buyers, since collectors who would be able to afford such valuable art are generally sophisticated enough to have heard news of the theft. Contrary to what is popularly imagined, stolen masterpieces are not generally purchased by unscrupulous collectors for secret collections. Collecting is a fundamentally social behavior, and collectors are not eager to acquire works they could display only at high risk of confiscation or imprisonment. Inexperienced thieves, who see opportunities to steal without planning how to sell the art afterwards, often attempt to elude prosecution by surrendering stolen masterpieces to authorities or destroying them (the likely fate of the Gardner artworks, which have not been recovered). The demand of ransom in return for the art is yet another strategy employed.

Masterpieces that cannot re-enter the legal art market may still have value in the black market. Many museums or their insurers offer rewards for information leading to the return of stolen art, usually around 10 percent of the value of the stolen art at auction. Thieves sometimes seek to claim these rewards, using intermediaries who appear to be unconnected to the crime. The existence of a reward can also lead to the use of the stolen art as black market collateral. Investigations have revealed criminal gangs trading stolen artwork for drugs, then selling the drugs and reclaiming the art. Stolen art is useful collateral, since it is easier to smuggle across borders than the equivalent amount of money, and if one party defaults on the transaction, the counterparty can make up their loss by claiming an official reward.

The other major portion of the black market for art is composed of antiquities looted from archaeological sites and then illegally exported from their country of origin. These thefts are difficult to track, since the local authorities are not aware of the existence of the stolen antiquities, which are taken directly from the ground. Historically, this black market operated unchecked once the antiquities were smuggled out of their country of origin, since countries with active antiquities markets seldom prohibited the import of looted antiquities (see Market for antiquities). However, beginning with the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, countries began to take the destruction inherent in the looting of antiquities more seriously, and attempted to decrease the supply of black market antiquities or antiquities that have entered the legal market disguised by forged export permissions. However, as shown by the ongoing looting of archaeological sites around the world, the temptation to buy looted antiquities is still strong, in part because the risk of detection and the weight of the penalties are both much lower for buyers than for other types of stolen art.

Various specialized authorities exist to combat the black market for both stolen art and looted antiquities, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Art Crime Team in the USA, the Carabinieri Art Squad of Italy, and Interpol, which maintains public databases of stolen art.


  • Bazley, Tom. Crimes of the Art World. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010.
  • Manacorda, Stefano and Chappell, Duncan, eds. Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property. New York: Springer, 2011.
  • Kila, Joris D. and Balcells, Marc, eds. Cultural Property Crime: An Overview and Analysis on Contemporary Perspectives and Trends. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
  • Hauser-Schäublin, Brigitta and Prott, Lyndel V., eds. Cultural Property and Contested Ownership: The Trafficking of Artefacts and the Quest for Restitution. New York: Routledge, 2016.
  • Pryor, Riah. Crime and the Art Market. London: Lund Humphries, 2016.
  • Clarke, Colleen Margaret and Szydlo, Eli Jacob. Stealing History: Art Theft, Looting, and Other Crimes against Our Cultural Heritage. Lanhamd: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
  • Hadjitofi, Tasoula. The Icon Hunter: A Refugee’s Quest to Reclaim her Nation’s Stolen Heritage. New York: Pegasus Books, 2017.