The Elusiveness of Stolen Art

Only 1.5 percent of looted work is ever recovered. Why don't museums put GPS trackers on everything?

Earlier this month thieves made off with a giant Renaissance masterpiece—a 10-foot by six-foot piece painted by Guercino in 1639, and worth over $8 million. Whoever took the painting didn’t have to do much; the security alarm on the church wasn’t working, and according to The Telegraph the church that housed the painting didn’t have the money to get it fixed. 

Once a work of art leaves a museum or church, the chances of getting it back are extraordinarily slim. According to The Art Newspaper, roughly 1.5 percent of the art that is stolen is ever recovered. Once it’s removed from its home, art is as hard to track as a stolen bike or wallet. Tracking your swiped iPhone is easier than tracking a 10-foot by six-foot Renaissance painting, because your iPhone constantly sends signals to the towers around it. Simply click “Find My iPhone” and there it is, location triangulated via GPS. So why don’t museums simply do the same thing? 

Robert Wittman, a former FBI special agent who has recovered over $225 million worth in stolen art (and wrote about it in his book Priceless), says that the technology I’m imagining essentially doesn’t exist. At least not right now. “To do that you’d have to have cell phone sized GPS systems attached to the back of every painting,” he told me. “You’d have to plug in every painting every night.”

Attaching a tracking unit to every painting might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s actually a huge challenge, Wittman explains. You’d need something that has a long battery life that you don’t have to constantly be charging. It would have to be small, small enough to put on the piece without damaging it and small enough to evade detection by thieves. At the same time, it would have to be designed so that if thieves did find it, they could remove it without damaging the art. This mythical unit would have to be powerful enough to transmit from inside boxes and closets and warehouses where burglars might take it, but cheap enough to allow museums to buy thousands of them. “That technology simply doesn’t exist,” Wittman said. 

That’s not to say that people aren’t working on high-tech solutions to art protection. In recent years RFID technology—using electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags on objects—has become more common in museums. In these setups, art is fixed with a small RFID tag that detects if the piece of art moves from its location on the wall or floor. An RFID reader in the building keeps track of these locations. So if someone pulls a painting off a wall, the alarm goes off immediately. But RFID systems only work inside the building. The tracker can only keep tabs on tags within about 230 feet. Once that painting is out the door, it’s electromagnetically invisible. 

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Rose Eveleth is a writer, producer, and designer based in New York.

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