Art is a small world, and art crime a bizarre one. Problems arise in trying to combat it that are negligible or even non-existent in other realms of law enforcement or crime prevention. One uniquely frustrating aspect is scale; perhaps in the era of universal globalisation, trafficking networks crossing continents isn’t surprising, but what is, is the scope of time. Art crimes can drag on over a span of years, from the time a piece is stolen, through the hands of fences and dealers, until it is finally sold; art criminals seem to possess extraordinary patience. The more hapless, small-time criminals often find themselves stuck with a work for years, trying to find a buyer without risking getting caught, while more sophisticated types will deliberately slow negotiations or delivery of an illicit piece to help them fly under the radar. There is evidence that the most experienced traffickers even exploit statutes of limitations, planning ahead for deals to be made only after they can no longer be tried, even if caught. This is one of the reasons successes like my post of smuggling stopped by the FBI don’t come often enough. Even in that case, it is likely even fraud would be easier to prove than violation of cultural heritage laws.
…Where those laws even exist—international treaties on the protection of historical and cultural patrimony have been passed, some decades ago, but often few countries have ratified them. Those that have, may not have the means or the impetus to enforce them; those that do, will still encounter the aforementioned problems. Imagine a statue looted from an unknown archaeological site in Asia. It may be stored in Switzerland by a fence, smuggled out via London, and finally sold in America. Whose laws apply? Which crime is charged in which country? What about the international accords? If it wasn’t dug from land deemed protected or owned by any one entity, was it technically stolen at all? And what about the buyer, or even the art dealer? Did they make the sale agreement in good faith? Are they to blame for receiving stolen goods? Should they have done due diligence? How were they to know if the provenance was correct? How is law enforcement to know if they simply turned a blind eye?
And there are more questions that could be raised. This is what makes art crime so exasperating: sometimes analysing the crime, tracking the smuggling route, arresting the perpetrators, recovering the piece, and restoring it to its owners, is the simple part.