Booming chronicle of stolen art: An editor joins the fight to halt the theft of 60,000 works a year. Paul Rambali reports

The recession may have hit the official international art market but its underground counterpart is thriving - and providing good business for an innovative publication, the Yearbook of Stolen Works of Art. The European Council says 60,000 works of art are being stolen in Europe each year, and so the 1,200 pages of the Yearbook, published in Paris, are crammed with photographs of everything from antique carriage clocks to the works of Van Gogh and Picasso.

Five years ago its editor, Martin Monestier, was publishing an antiques price guide, with a free page on which readers could report stolen items. The service was so popular that it doubled the guide's circulation. Setting to work on the Yearbook, he discovered an enormous trove of absent artworks. The Yearbook lists 8,000 pieces, each worth more than pounds 5,000, and often much more.

Monestier estimates that art worth pounds 600m has been stolen in Europe over the past five years. The Yearbook devotes 300 pages to paintings, many by old and modern masters, that have vanished from homes and museums, and passed under the apparently untroubled gaze of the dealers and collectors.

But the editor has met a wall of silence from art dealers anxious not to frighten buyers. Details of only seven of the 8,000 missing works came from professionals. One auctioneer accused him of publishing 'a book of rumours'. Three weeks later, the same auctioneer found that he had sold a stolen painting, which was identified in the Yearbook.

While the art world ignored Monestier's Yearbook, details flooded in from European insurance companies concerned about mounting claims, and from police departments such as the French Office for the Suppression of Theft of Works and Objects of Art and the Italian Artistic Patrimony Brigade.

France and Italy, with their immense artistic heritage, offer rich pickings for a new breed of international art thieves. Between 1985 and 1990, the Italian police managed to seize 40,000 pieces from mafia-organised looters of archaeological sites. They admit that four times as many may have slipped over the border, including a 250lb statue of Aphrodite, dating from 450BC, that turned up at the Getty Museum in California.

The cataloguing of such pieces, the first step in preventing their disappearance, will take the Italian Ministry of Cultural Affairs several decades. An inventory begun in 1964 by the French Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux, is still incomplete. It lists 300,000 works of art in 1,200 museums and 680 private collections. Since it was started, 12,000 items have gone missing from the public collections alone.

Mireille Balestrazzi, the divisional commander of the 30- strong French art squad, points out that art thieves can offload their booty with ease, notably in Belgium and Japan. The English are large buyers of French and Italian art, he says, and English thieves specialise in ransom, under the guise of discreet notices promising rewards for recovery. The problem, however, has been to identify works as stolen in the first place. Important works are often altered, the mounts and patinas changed, even details added to disguise well-known oils: Bonnard's Enfant triste acquired a smile. Lesser pieces are simply sent to public auctions.

Monestier believes that the existence of the Yearbook will prevent dealers from being able to use the legal justification that they bought works 'in good faith'. But the specialist thieves are still ahead of the specialist police, catering to what Monestier calls the democratisation of art-collecting since the Sixties. 'In the old days, the networks of dealers and clients were small,' he says. 'Everybody knew who owned what. Now everybody wants to own art, and the supply of art is limited. Once the thieves acted out of opportunity. Now, they plan and select. They've become connoisseurs.'

For example, he says, some of the magnificent collection of Corot paintings stolen from a provincial French museum in 1984 were found in Japan, decorating the home of a gangster boss.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey
Bafetibis Gomis of Swansea City is stretchered off at White Hart Lane
Jerry Seinfeld Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
peopleSitcom star urges men to be more supportive of women than ever
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
footballLouis van Gaal is watching a different Manchester United and Wenger can still spring a surprise
The spider makes its break for freedom
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Arts and Entertainment
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United player ratings
Life and Style
love + sex
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accountant - ACCA, ACA or ACMA - Construction Sector

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Accountant (ACCA, ...

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executive - PR and Broadcast - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has an exciting op...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor - Shifts

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This European market leader for security...

Recruitment Genius: Freelance AutoCAD Technician

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Freelance AutoCAD Technician is required to ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot