Turning Stolen Art into Money
May 5, 2006 5:10 AM   Subscribe

How can thieves profit from stolen masterpieces by using them as "collateral" for drug trafficking? How might they use the stolen works for money laundering?

I'm helping a friend with a screenplay in which relatively low level organized crime figures (involved in drugs, prostitution, etc.) carry out an art heist. I objected that a group of this sort wouldn't have the necessary connections to do anything substantial with the stolen items, but on researching the question a bit, I found this article (google cache) that says:

In reality, art theft is intrinsically linked to money laundering and drug trafficking


Thieves are unable to sell stolen masterpieces on the open market since the objects are so well known that reputable dealers will immediately recognise them. The only way a masterpiece can be sold is on the black market, either for cash or as collateral. A painting like Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna with the Yarnwinder could never be sold legitimately, and it is most likely that thieves are indirectly profiting from its use as collateral for drug trafficking.

How would this work?

I'm especially thinking of a museum or gallery heist, as opposed to a private owner, though this plot point is somewhat fluid. Also, the reason this happens in the script is that it's a subplot, intrinsic to the main story, for which just saying "change the profile of the thieves" won't work... They have to be rather thuggish sorts, not sophisticated or high society criminals.
posted by taz to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
  • Drug trafficker's crony has henchmen steal priceless Thorzdad painting.
  • Crony sells priceless Thorzdad painting to Drug Trafficker for about the same price as the insurance reward.
  • Drug Trafficker has Crony#2 "find" priceless Thorzdad painting and turns it in for insurance reward

  • Yes? Maybe? No way? I'll readily admit my money-laundering chops are not strong.
    Beyond that, the world of blackmarket art collecting is quite large and profitable. I suspect laundering money through it would be a lot easier than it might be in the legitimate world.
    posted by Thorzdad at 5:30 AM on May 5, 2006

    Response by poster: Well... in your scenario the drug trafficker doesn't see any profit, so I guess it's entirely about the money laundering? The amount seems too small to bother - like, around $500,000, at the most? Almost definitely under a million, at any rate... seems like too much risk for too little gain. I'm not saying this isn't the right answer.... I'd just be really surprised if drug traffickers would choose to spend much effort (or the risk of potentially exposing themselves) on laundering this little money in such a high profile way.
    posted by taz at 6:24 AM on May 5, 2006

    This book has almost exactly the plot you're describing, except it's nonfiction (about the theft of Munch's "The Scream" from a museum in Norway in 1994). You may find it answers most of your questions, and it's a good read too.
    posted by Quietgal at 7:06 AM on May 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

    A fairly common money-laundering ploy is to invest heavily in an little-known artist, then pump and dump their work.

    Insurance companies employ go-betweens who negotiate the return of stolen merch. The stories these guys can tell are mind-boggling.

    The US Customs Service is a treasure-trove of money-laundering and currency smuggling information. Chat 'em up.

    International currency transfers are done through a clearinghouse mechanism. Every city has one (and usually only one) bank that handles all the transfers through New York. Interviewing the people at that bank who handle large cash deposits and overseas transfers is very illuminating. No matter where you live in the US, one of your local banks does this.

    Two useful books:

    Hot Money and the Politics of Debt by R.T. Naylor
    The Secret Money Market by Ingo Walter is mentioned here

    Here's a nice overview with links

    I researched all this stuff ten years ago when I lowered the boom on the Fortuna Alliance. It was the first federal investigation of internet scams and established the FTC's internet fraud division.
    posted by warbaby at 8:02 AM on May 5, 2006 [5 favorites]

    This does not answer your question at all, but there was an art theft in the NY Times yesterdsay.

    A moving truck driver hired by an art dealer made off with a truckload of pieces. Apparently he did not know how to cash in on them either since they were found a couple weeks later sitting in a trailer park in Gainesville. Or maybe he just forgot to deliver them :)
    posted by p3t3 at 8:12 AM on May 5, 2006

    Does this article help? Basically it sounds like you could have people pay for drugs or whatever with a stolen painting, for however many transactions, and then whoever ends up with it holds it hostage until the museum pays a ransom for its return or they find a collector willing to buy off the black market.

    So your thugs wouldn't really be the ones finally dealing with the society folks. They'd trade the painting on up the line, to their supplier who'd give it to his supplier, etc.
    posted by occhiblu at 1:48 PM on May 5, 2006

    (I'm thinking, I guess, of what I've seen on something like The Sopranos. The lower-level guys keep their eyes open for what's out there and take the risks to get it, but then most of the rewards get passed on up the line until they hit the semi-respectable people at the top. The thugs wouldn't need to know people who'd buy the paintings to hang on their own walls, just people who'd be able to sell it on up the line.)
    posted by occhiblu at 1:50 PM on May 5, 2006

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