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Defining Art And Art Theft English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5512 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Thomas Crown is a billionaire, successful with women, handsome, smart and terribly bored. The idea of stealing a famous painting by Monet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is challenging and tempting and will give him the chance to cure his boredom. Catherine Banning, an insurance investigator, is the only one who suspects Thomas Crown, but she is getting too involved with Crown and she does not manage to keep a professional distance. At the end and after a series of misunderstandings, the painting is returned to the museum and Catherine runs away with Thomas (Reischl, n.d.).

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On August 21, 1961 Goya’s “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington,” an 1812 portrait of “England’s foremost war hero,” was stolen from the London’s National Gallery. It is probably one of the most bizarre art thefts in history and it puzzled the police for years. Few weeks before the theft the British government has raised £140,000 (the equivalent of roughly £2 million, or $3 million, today), in order to buy the painting from an auction and prevent its sale to an American oil tycoon. Not surprisingly the theft “drew enormous media attention and captured the popular imagination.” The painting had even appeared in the first James Bond film, “Dr. No” (which was filmed around the same time that the theft occurred), decorating Dr. No’s hideout in the Caribbean. What happened in reality, however, was less fascinating and three weeks after the theft the police received a strange ransom letter according to which “The Goya would be returned… if a charitable fund of equivalent value, £140,000, were established to pay for television licenses for old age pensioners.” The police refused to negotiate with the thief and the painting remained missing for several years, until Daily Mirror announced that would raise money for charity if the thief returned the painting. The painting was left in the Birmingham rail station few weeks later but again the police did not manage to track down the culprit. The thief turned out to be a 61-year-old retired cab driver, Kempton Bunton, who turned himself in few months later. Bunton certainly did not seem to match the police profile of “an athletic, ingenious, professional art thief”, who managed to climb and ender into the Gallery through an unlocked bathroom window, evade the guards and the technologically sophisticated security system and run away with the priceless portrait. Bunton was not found guilty due to a gap in British law, according to which “he could not be guilty of theft because he always intended to return the painting.” He was sentenced however to three months imprisonment for the theft of the frame which was never returned back (Charney, Hirsch, 2011).

Fictional representations of art thieves seem to differ from reality to a greater or to a lesser extent. The portrait of the Duke of Wellington was not kept in a lair in Caribbean and the thief did not resemble at all to the young, suave, handsome and elegant Thomas Crown. This study will shed some light to the dark world of art crime and the actors engaging in this world. It is probably not an exaggeration to claim that the majority of the general public perceives art criminals as “suave, sophisticated, handsome and smart” men who steal either to enrich their collections or because they have been hired by a rich collector (Ogden, 2011). Moreover, art crime is usually perceived as relatively harmless and art criminals are being portrayed as exciting and not to be “feared and reviled like any other criminal” (ibid).

Art crime is a research topic that has not been studied systematically. There are various forms of art crime some of which have drawn a lot of scholarly attention, such as the cases of looted art by the Nazis during the Second World War or the illicit antiquities trade. On the other hand, other art crimes such as art theft or art forgery and more precisely the nature of these crimes, have remained relatively understudied. In addition to this, there seem to be a paradox in the literature of art crime: “There is enormous amount of international scientific research in the organized crime area, but literature on crime prevention measures is limited. The reverse applies for literature on art crime. There is very little scientific research, but a great deal on legislation, locks and alarms, burglar proof installations and other crime prevention measures”(Korsell et al, 2006, 23).

For a number of reasons, a study that focuses solely on the actors engaging in art crime can be important. The first reason is related to the above mentioned lack of systematic studies of the nature of certain art crimes such as art theft or art forgery. The second reason has to do with the paradox mentioned above. If the perpetrators of art crime are not properly identified along with all the actors engaged in this network of art crime – either legal or illegal actors- how can we be sure about the effectiveness of the prevention measures. In other words, if prevention measures are not based on research “then there is a major risk that the various security arrangements that are introduced promise more that they can deliver” (ibid, 23). Finally, by identifying these actors and their roles, new more effective legislative and policy measures can be adopted in order to deal with the problem of art crime.

This small scale research will focus on the actors engaged in art related crimes in the Netherlands and more specifically on those engaged on museum thefts. The reason for focusing on museum thefts will be demonstrated on the following lines. Hopefully this study will constitute a starting point for further, systematic research which will address the issue of art crime more thoroughly.

In the following sections of this chapter, the aims of this research and the research questions will be given, followed by some clarifications regarding the definitions of art and art crime. Afterwards, the significance of studying art crime will be briefly discussed. Furthermore, the methodology along with a methodological reflection will be explicated and the legal framework regarding art crime in the Netherlands will be presented. Finally, the outline of the thesis will be illustrated.

Research aims and research questions

Criminological studies of art crime have mainly focused on illicit antiquities trade and on the art looted by the Nazis during the Second World War while other art crimes such as art theft or art forgery have not been studied systematically. Furthermore, the available literature regarding other forms of art crimes “is usually descriptive and discussions based on empirical data are rare” (Korsell et al, 2006, 22). Another gap identified in the literature is the limited research on “how different types of crime are both separate and linked” and on “how legal and illegal markets are linked” (ibid, 22).

The same gaps do exist in the literature concerning art crime in the Netherlands. The main body of this literature consists of reports published by government agencies, or conference papers. Again, a significant part of this literature is focusing on art and antiquities trade (Glimmerveen & Gimbrère, 2004; Intraval 2007; van Ham et. al. 2011). Besides, those studies which refer to art theft are mainly focusing on the incidents and on the preventative measures (Etman & Eelman, 1992; Etman & Geelen 1993; Intromart 2000) or in predicting possible situations of art theft incidents (Peek, 2011). Last, but not least, the majority of this literature is written by art historians rather than by criminologists, [1] therefore most of the times, art historians have none or limited knowledge on how to conduct criminological research.

As it was mentioned above it is not possible to address the issue of art crime in general, partially because the time of this research is limited, but also because “cultural heritage crime varies according to object, target and country” (Korsell et al, 2006, 160). Therefore the research focuses on art crime in the Netherlands and more precisely in museum thefts in the Netherlands and the first main research question is:

Who are the actors involved in museum thefts in the Netherlands?

Three sub-questions relevant to the main research question will also be addressed:

How are the museum thefts in the Netherlands organised?

What are the (possible) motives of art thieves?

Is there any evidence that museum thefts are connected either with other art thefts or with other criminal activities?

While reviewing the relevant literature it becomes apparent that is not possible to strictly identify (criminal) actors who are only involved in museum thefts or who are only involved in art crimes. The literature indicates that the same actors might appear in connection to more than one different crimes. The purpose of the main question, however, is to narrow down the focus of this research and use the museum thefts in the Netherlands as a case study. However, museums are not the only victims of art theft, actually galleries and private collections are – according to the literature – more often targeted by the thieves. The reason why museums were chosen for the case study is threefold. First of all, museum thefts are usually announced more often in the media in contrast to thefts from houses and galleries, therefore it is easier to be researched. Secondly, even if I had access to police files – that I did not – thefts from houses are not classified according to what is stolen therefore is even more difficult to estimate the amount of art thefts from private collections. Last but not least, it was easier to approach experts with knowledge in museum thefts rather than in any other type of art theft.

Regarding the sub-questions, the first sub-question aims to shed more light on the modus operandi of museum thieves. As it was mentioned above there are many prevention measures but very little scientific research, which means that there is a risk that the security measures may not be efficient (Korsell et al, 2006, 23). This sub-question aims to limit this gap of knowledge and increase our understanding of how museum thefts organised. Regarding the second sub-question, its aim is to provide the possible motives of art thieves and explain why art theft might be an appealing crime. Last but not least, it is often mentioned both in the literature and in the news that art crimes are either connected or they are related with other crimes such as drugs or even terrorism [2] . The purpose of the third question is to examine if there are any evidence that such a link does exist and would therefore justify further research to this direction.

Additionally to the main research question, one more question will be addressed

What is the role of the police regarding art crime in the Netherlands?

The purpose of this question is twofold. First of all, it aims to show how the authorities deal with art crime and secondly to determine whether there is a need for improving how the police deals with art related crimes.

Defining Art and Art Theft

According to Conklin “art” can be defined as “those types of objects typically displayed in a museum of fine arts” and therefore “art crimes” are all those “criminally punishable acts that involve works of art” (in Barrett, 1996). His definition of art is quite narrow since there are also other types of art that can be subject to criminal behavior (Barrett, 1996). It is however suitable for the purposes of this study, which will mainly focus of museum thefts in the Netherlands.

Regarding the art crime definition, Tijhuis argues that it is rather broad but it can provide a reasonable starting point if the range of activities is limited (Tijhuis, 2006, 129). Therefore, for the purposes of this study these activities will be limited to art theft and more precisely to museum theft.

Art theft is probably the most well known art crime (Passas & Proulx, 2011, 54), although it affects the art trade less than other categories of art crime, to a large extent because stolen art is rarely offered to the art market (Charney, 2009, 109). In contrast to what is commonly believed most art thefts do not occur in museums. Dwellings and galleries are usually the most vulnerable places and in the former case of dwellings art might be either stolen during a regular burglary or as a result of a well planned theft from a private collection. Since most of the items are not recovered it is difficult to say where they end up (Tijhuis, 2006, 130).

Other types of art thefts include thefts of religious art and objects from churches, or rare books and manuscripts (Tijhuis, 2006, 130-1). The last type of theft is not as well-known as for example museum thefts, but “occurs rather often and victimizes many libraries” (ibid). A striking example are the numerous valuable prints and books that the curator of the Delft Army Museum has stolen over a period of years from the museum’s library (Cremers, 2005).

“The final and most alarming method of profit is from raw material sale. Since 2005 there has been an international rush of thefts of bronze and copper artworks and objects, linked to astronomical rise in the price of these raw materials”(Charney, 2009, 109). In the Netherlands this phenomenon has also started gaining the attention of the state, since more and more thefts of statues or other metal objects are being stolen only for the raw material. One of the examples is the statues that have been stolen from the Singer Laren Museum (‘Singer Laren Restores the Thinker’, 2011).

Last but not least, art looted during the Second World War constitutes an art crime as well, which has drawn the attention of many scholars (Nicholas, 1994; Petropoulos, 1990, 1996). Along with antiquities looting from archaeological sites (Kirkpatrick, 1992; Brodie, Doole, Watson 2000) are probably most frequently subject to research.

The Significance of Studying Art Crime

“There exists a strange but inextricable link between art and the crimes involving them. We treasure art, lavish attention or vast sums of money on it; we even flock to see it. But despite this intense passion for the works, crimes involving art are often perceived as harmless or less serious than other wrongful activity. This despite art crime’s other corollaries, which often include organized crime, violent crime, or even white-collar crime”

(Fincham, 2009, 49).

Which is the significance of studying art crime? There is certainly not one answer to this question. As it was already mentioned an antique is a source of cultural information and at the same time constitutes a “critical component of national identity” (Passas & Proulx, 2011, 53). The same is true for every stolen work of art. What if the Flans Hals paintings stolen from Leerdam and Haarlem have never been recovered? Wouldn’t this have been a terrible loss and wouldn’t that leave “a hole” in the history of the Golden Age of the Netherlands as depicted through the art of the era? What about the artifacts stolen from Westfries Museum? They are probably not as famous as the Van Gogh paintings but they constitute the remaining of a glorious era of the city of Hoorn and are part of the cultural heritage of the Netherlands. All these artifacts, “play an integral role in the formation and perpetuation of national identity and self-image, and the destruction” or loss due to theft, “of such resources inevitably contributes to the destruction of a people’s identity” (ibid).

But art theft also has an economic impact. When a piece of art is stolen or destroyed a possible consequence is the negative financial impact “whether it is related to a decrease in a museum’s annual attendance figures, or a country’s tourist industry” (Durney, Proulx 2011, 119). Furthermore, as it was also mentioned earlier, prevention measures which are not based on research might prove to be insufficient (Korsell et al 2006, 23) therefore the money spent for designing these measures might have been spent in vain.

Methodology and Methodological Reflection

For the purposes of this study a qualitative approach was followed. Most of the data were collected from semi-structured. The correspondents were police officers who are specialized in art crimes, ex-police officers, employees from museums – either directors or people responsible for the security of the museum- private investigators, and experts from insurance companies or from state institutions. [3] Furthermore, the relevant literature was also thoroughly examined, along with many related articles from Dutch and English newspapers and the data gathered from these additional sources were compared with the data gathered from the interviews,. In the lines that follow the criteria which indicate the quality of the methodology will be presented and afterwards the methodology of this research will be presented and evaluated.

“Good research is valid research” and in order to achieve this, the researcher should monitor and reflect “upon all aspects of a research process,” from the very beginning till the end of the research (Davies et al. 2011, 172). Four are the main criteria which can be used to evaluate a research: internal and external validity and internal and external reliability.

However, both validity and reliability are criteria that have been initially used in quantitative research therefore their definition in quantitative terms is inadequate (Golafshani, 2003, 600). Validity can be perceived as the “extent to which one can rely upon and trust the findings and conclusions of a research study” (Davies et al. 2011, 355). Internal validity can be achieved through triangulation. According to Patton “triangulation strengthens a study by combining methods. This can mean using several kinds of methods or data, including using both quantitative and qualitative approaches” (in Golafshani, 2003, 603). Most relevant to this study is data triangulation, which means that different sources have been used in order to collect data. External validity refers to the extent that the result of the study can be generalized. “Therefore, the quality of a research is related to generalizability of the result and thereby to the testing and increasing the trustworthiness of the research” (ibid).

On regard to reliability Davies defines it as “the extent to which concepts and measures are well defined, consistent and repeatable” (2011, 353), however some researchers disagree by stating that “the concept of reliability is even misleading in qualitative research. If a qualitative study is discussed with reliability as a criterion, the consequence is rather that the study is no good” (Stenbacka in Golafshani, 2003, 601). For the purposes of this research the notions of internal and external reliability will be used in the sense that Maesschalck describes them. Internal reliability refers to the ability of the researcher to avoid bias and systematic mistakes and that means that if other researchers use the same data they should come to the same conclusions; only then we can assume that the research is internally reliable. On the other hand, external reliability can be achieved when other researchers will result to the same outcomes based on a new data which have collected during a new research (2010, p.132-133).

Methodology of the research and evaluation

Semi-structured interviews with experts were used as main research method. As it was mentioned earlier, the people who were approached work in different fields but were all familiar with art crime on one way or another. Although time consuming, the face-to-face interviews with 14 experts were feasible to conduct and yielded large parts of the information presented in this thesis. Furthermore, one interview was conducted by phone and another one was done via e-mail correspondence. Additional clarifying data was gained by phone or e-mail correspondence from sources including the Art Loss Register or relevant experts from the Culture Heritage Agency.

For a number of reasons this method of semi-structured interviews was considered as relevant to address the topic under research. First of all, the police files of relevant cases are not accessible to researchers. The procedure of requesting access to the files from the Ministry is time consuming and usually no permission is given to students who conduct small scale research, therefore this possibility of gathering data was rejected. Other methods, such as participant observation were not feasible due to the nature of the subject. For those reasons and taking into consideration the limited time of this research, interviewing experts was considered to be the most suitable method in order to achieve the aims of this study.

Before proceeding to the evaluation of the validity and reliability of the research, a clarification should be made regarding the data gathered from the interviews. Although that all the informants were experts in different fields relevant to art crime, most of the times they were not able to provide concrete, empirical data and the opinions they expressed were reflecting their perceptions on art crime rather than reality. That is not to say that the whole study is based on perceptions and that there are no empirical evidence provided. During the interviews the informants have referred to certain cases and facts, as presented on chapter 3, but they have also expressed opinions which mainly reflect their perceptions and ideas and are not supported by any – or sufficient – empirical evidence. Therefore, the data gathered from the interviews should be read with a critical eye.

The data gathered from the interviews were compared with data from other sources such as articles from the local and the international press. In regard to the cases of museum thefts all the relevant data gathered during the study were compared with the findings from the only relevant Dutch research, which was conducted by Peek (2011). In the publication by Peek experts have been interviewed in order to obtain opinions about the possible types of thefts, which objects are most vulnerable to theft and the possible motivations of stealing art. These predictions have been compared with the actual incidents of museum thefts in order to provide a view on how the ‘fears’ of experts are actually reflect reality. Therefore the triangulation of data by conducting a relatively high number of interviews and also compare it with news articles, along with the comparison of the data with the findings of the above mentioned study and with the existing literature resulted in strengthening both the internal and external validity of the material presented in this study.

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Although the respondents were easy to approach there were several problems during this research. It was mentioned earlier that the literature on the subject is limited and the same goes for literature and surveys on art crime in the Netherlands. Furthermore, certain problems have been encountered during the interviews. First of all there is a high degree of secrecy. The police officers who I interviewed were not allowed to reveal sensitive information regarding specific cases. The employees from insurance companies would only talk about non-sensitive issues and experts from the museums are either not willing to talk about a theft that happened in the museum or -as it came out from some interviews – have actually limited knowledge because the police did not reveal valuable information about the theft especially if the case is not solved. Additionally, I cannot exclude that some informants were hiding information for reasons which partially remain unclear.

Another problem was the fact that most of the museum thefts are not solved therefore there is a lack of empirical data. This gap was filled to a certain extend by the interviews but is certainly not eliminated since the majority of the cases remains unsolved. Obviously this problem affects the extent to which this research can be generalized and therefore the external validity of the research. Therefore, it can be argued that the external reliability is relatively low. There is apparent need for more empirical data in order to give a clearer view of the art crime network in the Netherlands. This work, however, acts as a first step towards the identification of art crime offenders and how they operate.

Finally, regarding internal reliability, as Willis argues “by stating one’s theoretical leanings and one’s own contribution to and experience by which knowledge is produced this process becomes inseparable from that knowledge. This approach is far less dangerous or ‘biased’ than one in which ‘theoretical assumptions exist in an unrecognized way’ (in Davies et al. 2011, 295). During the whole research I tried to reflect on my methods but also on my ideas and I also created a theoretical framework in which I included all the theories and notions that I used during this research. People are not a “tabula rasa” and in my opinion it is not possible to conduct research without being biased by certain ideas and beliefs. The danger is, as Willis argued, when the researcher does not realize that and is not reflecting upon his or her thoughts during the process of the research (ibid).

The Legal Framework

On an international level the Netherlands has ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention. [4] On a local level, although there are laws regarding cultural heritage and cultural heritage protection, [5] there is no specific legal framework for art crime. In cases of art crime articles from the existing penal code are used. More specifically in cases of art theft applies the article 310, while in cases of possessing stolen good there is use of the article 416bis. The article 326 applies in cases of possessing and selling fakes, while article 420bis is for money laundering. Depending on the occasion one or more of these articles might be used, but there are no special guidelines regarding penalties for art crime (Intr.14). [6] 

Penalties for these offences vary from two to five years imprisonment maximum. These penalties are relatively low if compared with other countries such as for example Germany. According to German law, theft is punished from 3 months up to ten years of imprisonment, while art theft is explicitly mentioned and falls within the category “especially serious” cases of theft (Bohlander , 2010). [7] 

Regarding the transfer of property right by theft, the relevant article is article 3 of the Dutch Civil Code. [8] According to the law, in order to transfer ownership three requirements are given. First, a title is required (meaning a reason to make the transfer, e.g. sale). Second, the person transferring the property should have the authority to do so. Third, is the requirement of delivery. [9] However there is an exception to this rule: “if the good is received for a counter performance and the buyer acted in good faith, the lack of authority is repaired (assuming that the other requirements are satisfied) and ownership is transferred. This is the Dutch rule for all moveable non-registered goods and all situations in which the authority is missing” (Rose, 2005, 9). A further exception is made in the case of theft. The owner of the stolen property is able to claim back his stolen property within a time span of three years from the time that the good was stolen, regardless whether or not the receiver came in possession of the item by acting in good faith. Two more exclusions are made in this exception. First, “rights to paper are not included in the exception”. Secondly, “if a natural person (not a legal entity) who did not receive the good for his profession receives the ownership of the good from someone selling the good as his normal profession (except an auctioneer) in a building intended to be used for such a profession, the original owner cannot claim his property”(ibid).

In the case of a bad faith purchase, the buyer becomes legal owner of the object after a period of twenty years, during which he or she should be in continuous possession of the object. For example, when someone steals a valuable painting, after possessing the painting continuously for twenty years, he or she becomes its legal owner and the real owner is not able anymore to claim it back. However, it is impossible to claim back your stolen property if you do not know who stole it so as to claim it back from him. This rule certainly applies “in favour of thieves and crooks” and the only exception that is made is when the stolen property is recognized as European or national cultural heritage. [10] In cases where cultural heritage is stolen, limitations range from one to 75 years depending on the type of claim. [11] 

Last but not least, in cases that the stolen art is insured, the insurance company is allowed to pay ‘tip money’ to informants who have information regarding the whereabouts of the stolen artwork. The process of paying ‘tip money’ always takes place through the police and the informants must not be related to the criminals. Furthermore, the whole process must take place according to the rules of the “Convenant Tipgelden.” [12] 

Plan of the thesis

if you agree with my research questions I am thinking to have the following plan for the thesis. What do you believe for this structure?

Chapter 3: answers partially the 1st research question and the 2nd sub-question

Chapter 4: answers 2nd and 3rd sub-questions

Chapter 5: answers partially the 1st research question and the 2nd research question (role of the police)

Table of contents

Chapter 1 Introduction

1.1 Research aims and research questions

1.2 Defining Art and Art Crimes

1.3 The Significance of Studying Art Crime

1.4 Methodology and Methodological Reflection

Methodology of the Research and Evaluation

1.5 The Legal Framework

1.6 Plan of the thesis

Chapter 2 Theoretical Framework

2.1 Introduction

2.2 Assessing the Organisation of Crime

Chapter 3 The Illegal Actors

3.1 Introduction

3.2 The offenders

The thieves

The fences

Organized Crime

Motives for Stealing Art

3.3. The buyers

Who are the buyers?

Motives for buying or receiving stolen art

Chapter 4 Museum thefts in the Netherlands


Probability of museum thefts according to different factors

The Frans Hals Museum The Hofje van Aerden Museum

(Maybe a sub-chapter


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