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The Art black market

28 septembre 2017

In 70 BC, forgers were already running through the streets of Sicily, and art thefts were usual. Today, it is a veritable black market of Art that has developed in Italy and in the four corners of the world. Focus on the practices of the mafia, the hub of this cultural traffic.

Art and dirty people

Cradle of ancient art, Italy has a rich cultural heritage. In Tuscany or elsewhere, one can find displayed in the streets and in the museums the paintings of the greatest painters of the Renaissance. Populated by majestic churches, monumental castles and museums of all kinds, Italy also attracts, for its greatest misfortune, the concupiscent eye of traffickers. Indeed, for some years, the Italian mafias, La Camorra, La 'Ndrangheta and La Cosa Nostra in the lead, take a close interest in this very lucrative market.

Art thus became the third illegal market in the world after drugs and weapons. Trafficking in artworks has many advantages for traffickers who see this as a long-term investment, as artworks are gaining value over the years. Roberto Saviano, author of the novel Gomorra who describes the practices of the Neapolitan mafia explains on this subject: "Today, art is the main channel for recycling dirty money. Because a Caravaggio painting leaves fewer traces than a mountain of silver, it can be moved easily and is a relatively safe investment. "

Thus, works of art become a discreet means of corruption. The author of Gomorra relates, for example, the story of a corrupt Italian judge with a work by Botticelli. Taken by the Mafiosi’s, the works of art ensure a certain social prestige as well as a certain economic prestige. In this respect, the specialist of the Camorra, Marcello Ravveduto, explains: "The Mafioso do not like the beautiful but the appearances. They belong to the oligarchy of the wealthy and want to adopt the codes of it. [The works of art were] first expressions of a social power before being, more recently, ones of economic power".


Thus Massimo Carminati, nicknamed "The Last King of Rome", possessed over a hundred works, including Picasso, Guttoso, Pollock and Warhol. Behind this traffic of art, it is a fine organization that is established. Plunderers of ancient relics, known as "tombaroli" to art dealers through art restorers, artworks pass through different hands before often ending far from their country of origin. Thus an ancient vase unearthed by an Italian peasant in exchange for a pig eventually landed in the showcase of an art gallery in Switzerland.Massimo Carminati

To generate more and more money (it is estimated a turnover close to the 10 billion dollars for this traffic) the Mafioso do not hesitate to make real burglaries in the biggest museums. Thus, as Olivier Tosseri reports in his article "When the Mafia takes over works of art " in November 2015, the works of Rubens, Tintoretto and Bellini worth a total of € 15 billion were stolen from the Verona Museum and eventually found in Ukraine. Globalization and intense flow of goods make the tracking of works even more complicated, with an estimated 90% of stolen works never found.

In search of lost pieces of art

Victim of a large-scale looting, Italy intensifies the tracking of counterfeiters. To combat theft and art trafficking, the carabinieri put in place an important structure that mobilizes bloodhounds, art historians and archaeologists. In his article, Olivier Tosseri writes about the organization of caribinieri and give details: "They are 250 men distributed in the fifteen operational centers scattered throughout the Italian territory". The use of the Leonardo software, which is the largest database of art objects in the world, allows investigators to identify the real value of art objects.Vases antiques retrouvés par les carabinieri

Brigadier Fabrice Parulli emphasized the role of the Internet in hunting traffickers: "Internet and e-commerce have given new opportunities to criminals but has also given us more effective ways to find the works". From the online sites, the police monitor the exchange of goods and spot suspicious works. This cyber control is a perfect illustration of the government's willingness to work with "major cultural institutions" to establish a more transparent procurement policy. Despite all the means put in place, the task remains arduous for the police who see these practices multiply all over Europe and abroad.

For example, in the case of the famous Cosa Nostra trafficker Gianfranco Becchina, the FBI opened an investigation file and recorded more than 13,000 documents including "fake invoices, fake packing lists and fake certificates". Some museums sometimes organize the exhibition of works of art by famous traffickers. This is the case for the Palace of Culture of Reggio Calabria, which has been hosting since 7 February 2017 the important collection of the trafficker Gioacchino Campolo, sentenced to 18 years in prison for his mafia activities. One way as another to bring this market from the shadow back into the light.