Criminal and Victim Profiles in Art Theft: Motive, Opportunity and Repeat Victimisation

Mackenzie, S. (2005), ‘Criminal and Victim Profiles in Art Theft: Motive, Opportunity and Repeat Victimisation’, Art, Antiquity and Law, X (4), 353-70.

In 1994, criminologist John Conklin published a book on a topic he noted to have ‘so far escaped the
attention of criminologists: crime that involves works of art’.The material he focussed on in the book,
which remains one of the few sources for criminologists interested in art crime, was largely drawn
from the media:

‘Because there was little social scientific research to draw on for this book, most of the raw
material comes from newspapers, art magazines, and a newsletter published by the
International Foundation for Art Research’.

It remains the case a decade later that there is little social scientific research on which to draw in
relation to the phenomenon of art theft. There have, however, been developments in three areas,
which suggest that returning to Conklin’s work and updating it may prove useful. These three areas
are: advances made in techniques of criminal profiling; the generation of a considerable amount of
criminological literature on patterns of repeat victimisation; and of course the additional raw data of
the various art thefts which have occurred since Conklin published in the mid-nineties.

Conklin used the framework of Routine Activities Theory (RAT) to explain art theft. RAT was developed
by criminologists in the late 1970s and early 1980s to explain, in highly practical terms, geographical
patterns of crime.The theory proposes that crime is likely to occur where three factors are present: a suitable target; a motivated offender; and an absence of capable guardians. This perhaps seems a statement of the blatantly obvious, but it does help to focus our attention on the central practical components of most art thefts.
In the first section below, we shall address the issue of the ‘motivated offender’: why are some people
motivated to steal artworks, and what kind of people are they? In the second section we shall
examine the other two components of RAT, under the auspices of repeat victimisation: is the repeated
theft of certain artworks explicable with reference to some quality inherent to the work itself, or can
repeat thefts be explained with reference to the suitability of the particular target and the habitual
absence of adequate security measures?