Can an object make you commit a crime?


THE COLLECTOR, The Big Picture Art Thriller Trilogy

Usually criminologists study the criminal, but many of today’s scholars recommend an object-centric approach for understanding art crime. 

Vincenzo Perugia, who stole the Mona Lisa in 1911, was not profit-motivated at the time of the theft, but later tried to sell the painting for 500,000 lire. His obsession with one particular work brings up an interesting point. Was there something inherent in the painting itself that inspired the crime? Can art be criminogenic or corruptive? The fact that these criminal activities are in relation to particular objects says it can be. And the repeat victimization of certain artworks also says yes. 

We can think of numerous crimes committed without an economic motive – from DUI to dueling, from Keeping a Disorderly House to homicide – but theft isn’t one of them.  Except, that is, for certain cases of art, antiques and antiquities theft. When I went back to school after many years, my first homework assignment was to answer the questions: Is art crime a separate type of crime? And why? My answer was yes, and because art isn’t like anything else, art crime is unique. 

Crime happens at the nexus of (1) a motivated offender, (2) a suitable target and (3) the lack of a capable guardian. Who are these motivated offenders? What kind of person steals art?  Turns out there are two kinds: profit-motivated (which makes up the majority of art thefts, are more likely to be committed by a group and more likely to use violence) and art-motivated (works alone since there will be no payoff to share and because he wants to keep the art for himself.) One art-motivated thief, Etoh Mvondo, stole three paintings from Paris museums in 1990 because he was an art-lover captivated by “the idea of owning a Renoir at the age of twenty.” A third type of art thief is politically motivated, but he is relatively rare.  Lately we’ve seen a wave of politically motivated art vandalism, but not theft.

Returning to Mr. Perugia, we have to ask how does art exert power over people who appear to follow other social norms, leading them to commit a crime with limited or no financial motivation, and with limited or no direct social pressure to do so? Their irrational choices hint at something beyond human centric models of why people commit crimes. To use this in your manuscript, you’ll need an object-centered slant. 

First, art can be criminogenic when it inspires a higher loyalty. Examples of the higher loyalty appealed to include saving the artwork or antique, their special appreciation of the object’s beauty, or for their own cultural edification. These lawbreakers valorize their criminal activity. Another criminology term is neutralization. This is a narrative tool offenders use to justify the injurious effects of their actions. Higher loyalty is different from other neutralization stories (denial of responsibility, denial of victim, etc.) because these thieves have no guilt to assuage. Higher loyalty says stealing the antique was not wrong because “I had to save it,” whereas neutralization says stealing the antique was wrong but “rich people have insurance.” This observance of a higher loyalty may lead art thieves to feel the law is invalid or unjust, and certainly minimizes the legitimacy of the system of laws. As antiquities collector, George Ortiz, said, “Objects came my way, and some of them unquestionably, it seems to me, because they had to do so. It is as though imbued with the spirit of their creator, they came to me because they knew I would love them, understand them, and would give them back their identity and supply them with a context in keeping with their essence, relating them to their likes.” The short answer to ‘what came over him’ is a belief system that our laws interfere with. According to Dr. Donna Yates at the University of Maastricht, where they see social benefit, the law sees crime.

Please come back on May 10 for Part 2.

All the best,



    1. Interesting discussion, Lane. Your study of art history etc. has obviously borne fruit. One motive that strikes me despite the explanations given by criminologists: Greed and entitlement. Whether for personal enjoyment, profit etc. the thief puts his own desires above the general good.

  1. Oh wow, I never really considered it like this. It makes perfect sense. So many times novels or movies where a detective needs to solve a murder ask the question of ‘why this victim’. As in, understand the victim and you will understand the perpetrator and find him. I never thought to really apply it to objects. Great post!

  2. The object is not integral to the crime; rather emanates from the criminal’s need to possess and control. An interesting ancillary discussion would examine whether the (non-economic) art thief exhibits such a need elsewhere in his life.

    1. Very interesting. Hope to see you at Malice to discuss more. Like how do you explain some paintings being stolen multiple times? Like Mona Lisa and The Scream?

  3. So interesting, Lane. Many of these same observations apply to people who steal rare books. Recently I read Nicholas Basbanes’s wonderful book, A Gentle Madness, and he has several chapters about people who steal books and why they do. I look forward to your next post!

  4. I love the idea that art objects find their way to someone because the objects “know” the person would love them. Crazy, creepy, and fascinating. Can’t wait for part 2

  5. Ohh, this is mind-boggling! It brings power to things, while it removes it from people. I’ll stay awake thinking about that one.

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