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Stolen-Art Market Is a Big Business At $2 Billion a Year

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IN Frankfurt, Germany, thieves tied up the art gallery's night watchman. In Boston, they entered an unguarded warehouse at night and cracked a big safe. In both cities, the objective was the same: Snatch the famous paintings and run.

The thefts late last month of two of J.M.W. Turner's landscapes from the Schirn Gallery in Frankfurt and of Mather Brown's portrait of Thomas Jefferson from a Boston warehouse safe on July 30, made headlines around the world: another megabuck heist of well-known art by unknown thugs.

The value of the Turner and two other paintings is an estimated $50 million. The Jefferson portrait, the earliest known painting of the third president of the United States, is insured for $500,000, but considered priceless.

The notoriety that comes when famous works of art are stolen does not necessarily mean that such crimes are on the increase around the world. ``I'm inclined to think there is less of it these days,'' says Bill Smith, director of fine-arts claims at Graham Miller International of New York, an insurance-adjustment company.

``In the '80s, the market value of art received so much attention, not because of the art, but because paintings were auctioned for unheard-of sums,'' he says. ``It sounded like a good day's pay to thieves. But they learned that well-known art is difficult to unload.''

Factor in archaeological looting along with fine-art thievery, and Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) in New York, thinks the level of stolen art and antiquities has reached $2 billion a year. Of that sum, she estimates that fine-art thefts work out to a $750 million-a-year market.

``From our point of view, the thievery never stops,'' she says. ``But if there was a graph drawn of fine-art theft over the last decade, and remembering that not all stolen art is reported, I don't think you would find a major increase under way. It goes in spurts.''

N Boston, where the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was pilfered one night in 1990 of $200 million worth of paintings - including two Rembrandts, several by Degas, a Manet, and a Vermeer - experts say there is no increase in theft.

``The publicity over the Gardner case and now the Jefferson theft makes it seem like a lot,'' says Bill McMullin, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Boston. ``But I don't see a change in the pattern of frequency, at least in Boston.''

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