Does for-order looting exist? Examining the evidence and testing a hypothesis.

Is looting-to-order/theft-to-order a myth? If (sometimes) people do loot directly for a collector, cultural heritage workers, law enforcement agents and concerned citizens need to look out for it, spot it and (re)act accordingly.

I deny thee, I deny thee, I deny thee…

The antiquities trade traditionally functions through looters selling antiquities to middlemen and collectors finding the artifacts in galleries or auctions. However, the possibility exists that collectors order specific artifacts or types of artifacts from specialist looters.

Unsurprisingly, antiquities dealer Jerome Eisenberg insisted that ‘theft to order’, or indeed any other form of ‘big illicit business in freshly harvested antiquities’, is ‘mainly restricted to the pages of improbable detective novels’. Yet not just art dealers (who have an interest in dissociating their business from high-end art crime), but academics, cultural property recovery consultants and international police services have dismissed or ridiculed the idea of ‘masterpieces being “stolen to order” for criminal masterminds’.

Lawyer and criminologist Antonius Tijhuis judged ‘the theft of works of art ordered by collectors’ to be a myth with ‘no (or a rather small) empirical base’. Then a specialist in the illicit art trade for Interpol, Jean-Pierre Jouanny told BBC News that it ‘looks good in the movies – but does not happen in real life’; another Interpol specialist, Karl-Heinz Kind, stated that he’d ‘never seen such a case… it’s just a myth’. The Founder and Chairman of the Art Loss Register, Julian Radcliffe, sighed, ‘[t]here is not some criminal sitting in Switzerland with a wonderful collection on his wall’.

It certainly seems as though for-order theft is a Hollywood fiction, but are unscrupulous collectors making reality reflect fiction? Trafficking is never static and we are constantly trying to identify its new forms.

This is a discussion that began on Twitter between Peter Campbell (@peterbcampbell), Sam Hardy (@conflictantiq), and Donna Yates (@DrDonnaYates). True to academic form, we have yet to form a consensus. Donna was busy, so Peter and Sam worked up this post. [Donna’s since considered a case from Honduras, which was probably not looting-to-order.] Let’s examine the available evidence and see if you, the readers, know of any more.

I don’t know much about archaeology, but I know what I like

To begin, there is good evidence of collectors having premeditated designs on cultural property. Collectors organized prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in an effort to remove Iraqi export and U.S. import restrictions. In 2003, a group of 60 collectors and dealers, calling themselves the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP), met with the Bush administration in advance of the invasion of Iraq to lobby for easy importation of its cultural heritage into the US.

Since then, collectors’ and dealers’ organizations and lobbyists have campaigned against the imposition of restrictions on import of antiquities from crisis-struck Greece and conflict-ridden Egypt, for the removal of restrictions on the import of antiquities from partially occupied Cyprus and war-torn Mali…

When is theft to order not theft to order?

One of the obstacles to studying this phenomenon is the (accurate but generic) use of “theft to order” to encompass orders from dealers as well as collectors. If theft-to-order-for-collector exists as well as theft-to-order-for-dealer, distinguishing between the two could help law enforcement, since resources would need to be used to target individual collectors in collector-directed crimes, but could be used to break multiple supply chains simultaneously by taking out the middlemen from dealer-mediated markets.

So, here, “theft to order” will refer to collector-directed robberies, and (for want of a better term) “predictive theft to order” will refer to dealer-directed robberies, where the dealer orders material that they believe they will be able to sell to one of a select clientele (such as the Chinese jade and porcelain that were, according to Durham Police Detective Superintendent Adrian Green, stolen for a dealer who had ‘already identified a potential market’).

Whether it is theft-to-order or “predictive” theft-to-order, certain criminals individually target high-value cultural goods. Some of these criminals may be cultural property specialists within the generic “knocker boy” system of robbers, fraudsters, fences and dealers. But one armed gang tied and beat a retired vicar, then ransacked his home as an art expert directed their theft of millions of pounds’ worth of paintings via smartphone.

Often, when cultural objects are very large or very wellknown, and therefore very difficult to sell openly, it convinces cultural heritage workers and law enforcement agents that they have been stolen-to-order.

Still, occasionally, identifiable antiquities are sold to unknown buyers because the sellers feel beyond the law, or they are dumped or destroyed by panicked thieves who have stolen them without knowing middlemen, let alone collectors. One incompetent armed robber got away with a suspected theft-to-order, only to be caught ‘when he booked a conference room at a hotel to sell the paintings’.

Furthermore, sources can be contradictory or confusing. Estado de Sao Paulo reported that a theft of paintings by Picasso and Portinari from the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) in Brazil was an attempt to extort money from the museum by ransoming its property; yet, while stating that ‘an evil connoisseurs’ black market’ was ‘largely a myth’, the New York Times noted that a suspect in this case had ‘told the authorities that the works were to be delivered to a collector in Saudi Arabia’.

And, due to false leads, operational strategies and social considerations, law enforcement agencies can misreport or misrepresent antiquities trafficking cases, as Greek police did repeatedly during the Olympia museum robbery investigation.

Nonetheless, it is possible to identify thefts of individually-targeted pieces of cultural property, whether it is because of the objects’ identifiability, because the robbers left behind other valuable pieces, because the robbers took objects exclusively from a temporary exhibition the day before it closed, because galleries that had not been robbed once in twenty years were then robbed six times in twelve months, because some really are ‘very “Thomas Crown Affair”’, or because some are insider jobs.

Many of them may be stolen-to-order for dealers, rather than collectors. But it is not possible to dismiss all of them as opportunistic smash-and-grab raids by ignorant generalists who do not know buyers for what they have stolen. And it is not plausible to dismiss all of the buyers as stockpiling dealers.

Reality is not as strange as fiction

Professional exasperation at public fascination with Dr. No, Thomas Crown and Molloy may be understandable, but part of the problem may be cultural heritage workers’ and criminologists’ own obsession with those figures. Collectors who steal for themselves, such as Neil Winstanley and Stéphane Breitwieser, may appear dismissibly eccentric rather than megalomaniac. And magpie collectors and cat burglars may appear dismissibly mundane. One theft to order was of a barometer from a local museum, by a shoplifter who had been convicted ninety times before, for £200; but it was worth £150,000. Such criminals exist.

Collectors do not need to be the head of Globex Corporation to have the will and the wherewithal to put in an order for cultural objects. They can casually approach hobby divers to retrieve specific artefacts from specific shipwrecks in British waters. They can put in remote orders to Syrian looter-smugglers via the internet or travel to Turkey and make deals face-to-face. Some ‘collectors… are very well known among the local looters’ in Guatemala.

A recent example is the theft of the ‘Arbeit macht frei [work liberates]’ sign from Auschwitz death camp. Swedish former neo-Nazi Anders Högström directed the theft for a British neo-Nazi collector; Högström claimed that the theft was committed to raise funds for neo-Nazi terrorist attacks in Sweden, but that appears to have been a bizarre attempt to distract attention from his boutique smuggling operation.

And, despite lazy ridicule, serious organized criminals with hoards of art and antiquities do exist, too. When the police raided “Don Tito” Beniamino Gioiello Zappia, who operated between the Bonanno family of New York, the Rizzuto family of Montreal and Cosa Nostra in Sicily, they found millions of dollars’ worth of art and antiquities. When they raided Gioacchino Campolo, who worked for the ‘Ndrangheta, they found more than a hundred artworks, including Dali’s Romeo and Juliet.

South America

Archaeologist Daniel Schávelzon stated that ‘an important proportion’ of Argentinian museum ‘thefts was made “to order”’. FBI Inspector Margot Kennedy quoted an arrested Argentinian police officer: ‘I can take out of Argentina whatever painting you want, from whichever museum you fancy; we have an organization that works like a clock’.

North America

In a seeming case of predictive theft-to-order, around 1968, looters contacted dealer Everett Rassiga to offer him the façade of the Maya stucco temple in Placeres. A group of investors funded and oversaw its removal, and managed its illicit transport from Mexico to the United States for sale (though the Metropolitan Museum of Art reported them and the piece was recovered and delivered to the National Museum in Mexico City). In another, in 1999, a gang of armed robbers that specialized in art and antiquities stole paintings by Rufino Tamayo from the Lopez Quiroga Gallery (though their stash was recovered from a residential complex).


North-Western Europe

Dutch Army Museum Curator Alexander Polman stole 2,000 historic prints and ‘sold almost all of those to the same antiquarian book dealer’. Peter Bellwood and Melvin Nelson Perry stole ‘to order for collectors across the world… or dealers who do not ask too many questions’.

Southern Europe

Based on data from the Carabinieri Headquarters for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale), the Italian delegation to a UNESCO committee on cultural property judged that ‘[t]heft to order’ was one of the crimes that ‘characterized’ the illicit market for cultural property in Italy. In 1969, Cosa Nostra heroin processor-trafficker Francesco Marino Mannoia personally fulfilled the order for Caravaggio’s Nativity with Saint Peter and Saint Lawrence.

Carabinieri Marshal Sergio Banchellini (paraphrased by Reuters) revealed that looters in Puglia pillaged Greco-Roman archaeological sites ‘to order’ and sold their desired finds ‘via a middleman to clients’ in Milan; as with Zappia’s and Campolo’s collections, ‘some pieces were found on display in people’s homes, rather than being hidden away’ as might be expected.

Eastern Europe

Russian Interior Ministry investigator Colonel Alexei Bykovtsev explained that there are more than forty gangs from the former Soviet Union, which ‘have escape and sale venues ready, and the thefts often come on order’. Commonly, émigrés in market countries take and deliver orders, which are supplied by unemployed cultural heritage workers back home in source countries. Otherwise, they raid private collectors’ houses in the market countries.

The Eastern Mediterranean

During the civil war in Cyprus, there was ‘at least one case of a well-known collector… contracting groups of looters in order to obtain rare antiquities of a specified date’. Looters in the same district in the same period ‘systematically obliterat[ed]’ an ‘entire Mycenaean city’.


In 1993, a ‘consortium of European dealers’ employed ‘many hundreds’ of subsistence diggers to strip-mine Nigerian archaeological sites. In 1994, two traders ‘employ[ed] about a thousand diggers [each] to systematically loot the rest of the Nok culture’. In Mali, dealers have hired ‘[w]hole villages and encampments of immigrant workers’ to fulfil their predictive orders.


West Asia (the Middle East)

Even under the regimented control of the Ba’athist regime and United Nations sanctions, the head of a statue in the palace of Dur-Sharrukhin at Khorsabad was ‘likely… stolen “to order”’ (according to the Director-General of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq, Muayad Damerji, paraphrased by the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre).

Likewise, there is evidence that, in the pillage following the United States-led invasion of 2003, looters targeted specific antiquities at Nimrud. Site director Muzahim Mahmud said that the looters ‘ignored everything else, went right to that frieze [of a winged man carrying a sponge and a holy plant], and took it’; investigative journalist Roger Atwood judged it to be ‘customized looting’, the fulfillment of the ‘orders of a buyer who had put in his request in advance’.

These might have been, like so many others, predictively stolen-to-order for dealers; but Syrian looter-smugglers have confirmed that they have looted-to-order for European collectors, and it is not plausible to deny that this perfectly mundane reality is a more general phenomenon.

South Asia

In India, the mastermind of a worldwide antiquities trafficking network, Subhash Kapoor, ‘order[ed] the theft[s]’ of sculptures from temples for sale to the highest end of the antiquities market, including national museums. The police operation against this inconceivably large enterprise has already recovered more than a hundred million dollars’ worth of antiquities. Fantastic details can be found in the investigation started by Damien Huffer, carried on by Jason Felch, Vijay Kumar, the Australian’s Michaela Boland and the Hindu’s R. Srivathsan.

South-East Asia

When he was captured, after he had sold the most valuable pieces, Khmer Rouge Commander Ta Mok still had ‘more than 20 tons’ of antiquities. And the army has taken up where the regime left off. Whole companies of soldiers plunder and deliver antiquities to order for dealers, from sites such as Banteay Chhmar.

According to archaeologists who have both worked in Cambodia and Thailand, ‘one of the biggest markets for [Cambodian] Khmer antiquities is Bangkok (Thailand), where art stores carry not only Khmer antiquities, but also catalogs of intact architectural elements at Khmer temples that can be removed (i.e., looted) to order’.

There is a ‘widespread… practice of specifically ordering objects of art by certain clients’, within which not only dealers but also ‘collectors request the artifacts from known temples’, or similar things from other sites. A dealer told criminologists that, if they wanted something from a site, they ‘should go and take a picture of it [in situ] and he would arrange for it to be looted and delivered… within a month’ (so even looting-to-order via a dealer may be looting-to-order for a collector).

East Asia

In China, organised crime groups have engaged in predictive looting-to-order: ‘Brochures showing photographs of stolen statues were given to prospective buyers. After a buyer was found, the stolen figures were smuggled out of mainland China.’ For example, “Billionaire Hou” Linshan’s hi-tech ‘ring of thieves robbed ancient tombs and smuggled priceless relics out of China to supply international collectors’. Further afield, Mongolian police have foiled attempts to steal the ancient art of High Saint Zanabazar on ‘the order of Chinese buyers’.

Theft to order

It’s impossible to estimate the size of the theft-to-order business; and it’s impossible to assert that it is a standard supply line in the trade; but it definitely does exist as a strategy, and has been used by different groups in different places over the course of at least forty years.

Since the boutique trade exists, and the internet exists, the even more unquantifiable element is the use of the dark web or of dark networks to make deals; but again, it is a mundane reality, not an exotic fantasy (after all, the simplest chat programs can be somewhat encrypted services, and Syrian looter-smugglers take orders from collectors via Skype).

Do you know of other cases of theft to order? The potential of this type of looting is real, meaning this is a hypothesis worth looking into. The scale of this segment of the trade may be small in terms of quantity of antiquities and artworks. However, it is worth millions.

As a research community we can investigate this aspect of the trade. Consider it as a possible route that antiquities may take and if you come across any evidence please post it in the comments. Perhaps together we can illuminate one of the darker corners of the illicit antiquities trade.

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