Every time there’s a story about stolen paintings, I always wonder who’s buying.
Presumably it can’t be an investment. After all, the only way to cash it in would be to sell it on the open market — a clear impossibility.
A private art-lover? A criminal art-lover? Still, a fair amount of the price of artwork — especially the Picassos, Matisses and the like that are most commonly stolen — is in the showing-off. A glance at the list of most expensive paintings gives an idea of the kind of person who buys expensive art. Who can you show off to, if you have contraband goods? Most people who would be impressed/interested in your contraband would also be appalled by its provenance.
At the same time, you would have to have a buyer, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t just steal paintings without a buyer; you’d be holding onto the hot goods without any way of extracting any profit from them.
If anything, I think the persistence of art theft points to the persistent shadiness of art dealing in general. Unsuspecting private collectors probably buy them without knowing what they are, at bargain-basement prices compared with Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But with high-profile pieces, I would imagine that the collectors must know the pieces are stolen, unless they are mislabeled, misattributed, etc. Basically, the stolen art market must rely on the ignorance of its buyers, rather than some super-savvy Mafia collectors, hoarding stolen paintings.