More than a pretty picture: Mafia bosses said to bank big on art

Archeological sites are now attracting the attention of thieves and criminal organizations the world over

Francesca Astorri
Francesca Astorri - Special to Al Arabiya English
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A renowned Italian journalist has claimed that the Mafia earns significant income dabbling in the fine art trade and uses it to launder money, in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Journalist Roberto Saviano has lived under police protection for the past 10 years since his bestseller Gomorra was published in 2006, revealing the darkest sides of Mafia and selling over 10 million copies around the world.

“Today art, especially contemporary art, is the main channel for money laundering” said Saviano in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa. “A painting by Caravaggio, for example, leaves less traces than a big amount of money. It’s easy to transport and it’s a relatively safe investment” Saviano explained.

The relationship between art and organized crime has been in the spotlight after two works by the famous Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, stolen in Amsterdam more than 14 years ago, were recently found in Castellammare di Stabia, a little town in the South of Italy, in the cottage of Mafia leader and alleged drug trafficker, Raffaele Imperiale.

Italian investigators displayed the recovered artworks - a sea scene and a church where the painter's father was minister - to reporters in Naples, saying each was worth an estimated 50 million euros ($56 million), according to Reuters.

“It is a great day for us today to see the works and to know that they are safe and that they are in safe hands,” said Axel Ruger, director of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum, who was present when the paintings were shown to reporters.

“We may have to be a bit patient, but we hope that we will have them soon back where they belong,” he said, adding the museum would respect Italian legal procedures.

“Camorristi (members of Mafia group Camorra), tax evaders, common criminals, all invest in art. Probably today this is the main channel to clean money of illicit origin” said Saviano.

Some criminal organizations consider having paintings by important artists as an display of power, but in some cases the only goal is business.

Business institutions are now more aware of the value of art as an investment. Deutsche Bank has an art collection of more than 56,000 works, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. Harvard Business School’s collection of more than 200 pieces, assembled over the last two decades, is not a short-term investment. Commerzbank decided to buy a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti for $104m in 2010.

As a lot of money flows in the art market, Mafia groups are reportedly focusing on looted art.

Cales archeological site near Calvi Risorta in the south of Italy has been completely sacked and Saviano claims it is the work of the Italian Mafia.

“Amphorae, statues and archaeological finds: everything has disappeared. Mafia clans were stealing everything to sell it again in the black market. This business can’t be under-estimated,” he said.

According to Saviano, precious antique vases were confiscated from the house of the sister of Michele Zagaria, Italian Camorrista and one of the bosses of the Casalesi clan in the province of Caserta, although this cannot be independently verified.

According to the website of the Italian national gendarmerie, 22,252 works of art have been taken illegally.

The United Nations estimates the total profits of transnational criminal organizations may be as high as US$ 1.6 trillion, making up 1.5 percent of the global GDP, with art being the fourth international business for organized crime after drugs, weapons and financial products.

Archeological sites are now attracting the attention of thieves and criminal organizations also in other parts of the world. After the Arab Spring, museums and archeological sites in Egypt and Syria were looted by thieves and the lack of a strong regulations against this illegal business has made it difficult to deal with the problem.

Over 300,000 objects are registered on the database of The Art Loss Register, a database that helps auction houses to detect these looted works of art and prevent illegal trade.

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