MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Late one night last winter, thieves broke into the Paris apartment of Pablo Picasso's daughter and granddaughter and they stole two of the painter's best-known works. It was not an isolated incident.

Several years ago, thieves made off with one of Edward Munch's famous painting. It was called "The Scream", and it was taken from a museum in Oslo. And before that, thieves carted off a dozen masterpieces from a Boston Museum.

As Frank Browning reports, art theft has turned into a global industry, and experts believe it fuels everything from terrorism to drug-running.

FRANK BROWNING: Anne Hawley is a woman in love with her job - director of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum. It's a jewel-like palace with a full Florentine courtyard and hundred of paintings and art objects.

Ms. ANNE HAWLEY (Director, Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum): This is the Dutch Room. And it's exactly what Gardener did in every gallery, which was to create an environment for you to experience art. It wasn't intellectual, it was spiritual.

BROWNING: All of the works were selected by collector philanthropist Isabella Steward Gardener in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it remains exactly as she mounted them.

Ms. HAWLEY: Now, we're walking to the frame that used to enclose Vermeer's "Concert".

BROWNING: A painting purchased by Gardener and one of the museums great treasures. It depicts three musicians - a singer, a harpsichordist and a lutenist - except that the frame was empty. And it's been empty for 17 years since thieves broke into the Gardener museum and stole it along with two Rembrandts and nine other works. None ever recovered.

Mr. PAUL "THE TURBO" HENDRY (Police Informant): I've been saying for years, the way for the Vermeer to surface is for it to be left in a confession box in a Catholic church. No one can be arrested. The person leaving it there can even take his confession, and is the symbolism of absolution.

BROWNING: Or so, says one-time art-thief-turned-police-informant Paul "The Turbo" Hendry. In a house full of paintings on the south English coast, Hendry claimed the Gardener paintings went to a convicted Boston killer named Whitey Bulger, who took the paintings to Ireland and left them with his allies in a radical wing of the Irish Republican Army.

Mr. HENDRY: Through my own connections, I had negotiations with the current chief of staff of the IRA, a man called Thomas "Slab" Murphy. And I said to him, if he could secure control of the Vermeer, then it could be handed back in a political way.

BROWNING: Two years ago, a joint British-Irish force of some 300 agents raided "Slab" Murphy's house as part of a major guns and money-laundering investigation related to IRA finances. None of the Gardener works were found. Murphy claims total innocence, describing himself as a simple pig farmer who lives with his mother.

As for Hendry's version of the Vermeer's story, the Gardener Museum's chief of security simply rolls his eyes. Hendry is a creative storyteller, but, says Dick Ellis, who used to head Scotland Yard's art theft unit, Hendry has proven useful in the past in recovering stolen art - an industry that Ellis says is one of the largest criminal activities today.

Mr. DICK ELLIS (Former Head, Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Squad): Currently, the insurance market figures on stolen art and antiques is equal to that of auto theft.

BROWNING: Or, $1.5 billion a year in England and Wales alone, according to data provided by the British Home Office.

So, you may wonder, who's coming up with that kind of money and where are all of those pictures and antiquities going? A lot of people in many movies, many tales of secret collectors hoarding masterpieces in underground vaults. Not so, says Dick Ellis. It's all about organized crime and the police are not set up to handle it.

Mr. ELLIS: The resources that the law enforcement apply to policing art and antique crime is currently three police officers at Scotland Yard, and it is just clearly not the type of response that is needed if you're going to make inroads into an area of crime, which globally is being used to finance terrorism, drugs, arms trading. You have to look at it in that way. You have to look at it that with every major art theft that is fueling the amount of drugs on your streets.

BROWNING: Noah Charney, a consultant and scholar at Cambridge University, goes further.

Mr. NOAH CHARNEY (Consultant, Cambridge University): It's one of the major funding sources for organized crime syndicates. It's the third highest grossing criminal industry worldwide, behind only drugs and arms trade. It depends who you talk to in on the year, whether it's $2 billion or $6 billion a year.

BROWNING: That's right, $2 billion to $6 billion worldwide, according to the dozen or so police forces Charney has worked with. He says art theft is only one part of a global business. The art itself is just one thing of value to be traded for another.

Mr. CHARNEY: Objects are constantly moving one store room to another without ever ending up in one place that is traceable. The art objects are being treated as a check or as a tradable commodity.

BROWNING: Some of the work is too famous to be sold on the legitimate art market. Instead, the art becomes a vehicle for drug traffickers or gunrunners to launder money, says Julian Radcliffe of the London-based Art Lost Register, which tracks stolen art.

Mr. JULIAN RADCLIFFE (Chairman, Art Lost Register): Since it's difficult to move cash without being caught in customs or moving money through the banking system, you got to find some other way of moving value around the world. One of the ways is diamonds and other is art and antiques.

BROWNING: Opening up national borders, former Scotland Yard officer Dick Ellis says, has given a huge boost to the trade in stolen art. Ellis tells of one Egyptian antiquity that was sawed into smaller bits and then was stashed in carry-on languages later to be reassembled with invisible steel pins.

Mr. ELLIS: That's an international commodity. You can sell something stolen in the U.K., in the U.S. for dollars. You can send it to Japan for yen.

BROWNING: Ellis says thieves get nowhere near full value, usually only 10 to 12 percent. But even if a thief trades a multi-million dollar Picasso for, say, $500,000-worth of AK 47's, he still comes out okay. Regional wars involving old tribes, new gangs have made it worst says Julian Radcliffe, citing the Balkan War of the 1990's.

Mr. RADCLIFFE: During that war, criminals were used by all sides to provide them with arms. So the criminals flourished, the same thing happened in Northern Ireland, the same thing is happening in Iraq. And, for example, many Balkan gangs sent their accomplices out to Western Europe to steal pictures, jewelry, diamonds and so on. Once they could get those items back into the Balkans, there was no chance of any police force pursuing them because there are no police force able to do so at the time.

BROWNING: Radcliffe and Ellis say that art is often held as security at an arms deal. Then, once the guns are paid for, the art is gradually sold back to Western Europe through shady dealers or art fares. Most stolen art, however, is not famous, but is instead antiquities taken not from museums but dug up by peasants around the Mediterranean or Latin America, or these days, in Iraq and then sold into the black market, says Noah Charney. And he says these works often end up on eBay.

Mr. CHARNEY: If you buy a pre-Columbian figurine or a Greek coin on eBay, it is almost certainly either a fake or was looted at some point, dug out off the ground in a manner that is considered illegal.

BROWNING: Experts, insurance and police investigators attribute the boom in the hot art market to several factors. But high on the list are the arrival of the Internet and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While the notion of a sinister Dr. No stashing master works in a mountain palace is largely fiction, the sudden new wealth generated in Russia, Asia and Eastern Europe has produced a new breed of status seekers.

Dorit Straus is the head of art underwriting for the Chubb Insurance Group.

Ms. DORIT STRAUS (Art Underwriting Head, Chubb Insurance Group): There are many people in the former Soviet Union, Asia - China in particular - we have an emerging class of people with wealth and it's possible that some of these works will end up in those marketplaces where there's less vigilance or scrutiny of those types of works.

BROWNING: Internet exchanges, poorest borders, quick new wealth matched to regional warfare and the search for status, add them all together and you'll not be surprise the next time you read of a stolen Vermeer, Rembrandt or Picasso disappeared into the shady netherworld of international art thieves.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.

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