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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Life and Style
fashion
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Multi-skilled graphic designer ...

Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solicitor

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solic...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches