Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



Art prices are reaching spectacular heights. Current estimates place annual worldwide retail sales between ten billion and forty billion dollars;' each auction season, bidders smash previous price records. For example, at a May 9, 1989 Sotheby's auction, a buyer paid 47.9 million dollars for Picasso's self-portrait "Yo-Picasso"; Gaugin's "Mata Mau (In Olden Times)" sold for 24.2 million dollars. The next day at Christie's, an investor purchased a Monet for 14.3 million dollars, twice it's estimated value.' The inflated prices have inspired people without a prior interest in art to conceive a sudden passion for collecting by any available means. As a potentially lucrative, multi-billion dollar business,art collecting has attracted a full range of unscrupulous individuals.

Although it is difficult to assemble accurate art theft statistics, experts estimate that approximately 53,0006 worldwide thefts occur annually, with losses valued at between five billion and ten billion dollars. The increasing magnitude of art theft has raised concerns with regard to the difficulty of locating stolen art; experts estimate that recoveries are as low as two percent. An international passion for acquiring potentially valuable artworks contributes to the problem of recovering stolen art. Buyers in the high demand market rarely probe the origins of desirable pieces.' Thieves frequently smuggle and trade stolen art internationally through organized rings of brokers and middlemen." Smuggled pieces eventually filter into otherwise legitimate markets. A cooling off period after the theft may complicate recovery attempts further. Not surprisingly, locating and recovering a particular piece of stolen art in this environment may require several years.