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Art crime

Why does art attract crime? Because we value art and find it meaningful. Dr Donna Yates discusses the different ways crime intersects with art.
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Welcome back to our second week. Moving on from our discussion of antiquities trafficking, we’re now going to delve into the complicated, often criminal world of contemporary art. Beneath the glamour of high end galleries, modern museums, wealthy collectors, and gifted artists, lurks a darkness, a seedy underbelly of theft, fraud, forgery, and other crimes. Art is a creative reflection of human experience, given physicality through the talents and inspiration of artists. Art can be beautiful or horrific, serene or challenging, conservative or world changing. We often say that art has intangible value. By this, we mean that physical artworks evoke emotional experiences in those who engage with them.
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And these experiences are, at times, so profound that they strike at the very core of our human identity. But intangible value is often accompanied by monetary worth. The transcendent experience of art certainly has meaning beyond the market, but markets grow around what people care about. Because art is beautiful and profound, people are willing to pay large sums of money for it. From art museum entry fees, and, of course, museum shops, all the way up to mind boggling multimillion dollar art auctions, the art world is highly commercialised. There is a lot of money to make in art. And, like in any sector where money is on the table, crime creeps in.
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But there are certain qualities of the art world that make it uniquely vulnerable to certain types of crime. There’s an impression that the art world is sophisticated, cultured, and elite. And because of this, it’s generally viewed positively by the public. Art criminals, then, may not resemble our mental picture of lawbreakers. We might label a shady character on a dark street corner as a potential thief, but we would likely never suspect the well dressed society sort mingling with the rich and famous gallery openings. Indeed, the exclusivity of the art market makes it very difficult for law enforcement and art crime scholars to monitor it for misdeeds.
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Art world transactions take place behind closed doors, between elite actors and insiders, with little in the way of regulation or public reporting. In other words, we have social elites engaging in high value financial transactions, and a market that’s closed to regulators. These factors make the art world almost a textbook setting for so-called “white-collar crime.” This week, we will explore three different types of art crime to better understand how art can be used and misused– art theft, art forgery, and art vandalism. Two of these crimes are focused specifically on financial gain. The criminals seek to profit from our insatiable desire for the intangible qualities of art. The third, vandalism, is more complicated, and usually has little to do with money.
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Perhaps we should call it a crime against art, instead of an art crime. Using a combination of art historical research and criminological theory to explore some exciting case studies, we’re going to shed a bit of light on the shady world of art crime. In the next step, we’ll be reading about the many thefts of one of the world’s most famous paintings– The Scream.
Why does art attract crime? Because we value art and find it meaningful. Dr Donna Yates discusses the different ways crime intersects with art.
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Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime

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