Guatemala Nabs Art Thieves but Paintings Disappear into Black Market

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Officials in Guatemala have captured two men accused of belonging to a criminal ring that stole a series of paintings by the artist Tomas de Merlo, offering a rare insight into the billion dollar art crime trade.

The men were arrested on February 24th as part of an investigation into the theft of paintings from a church in the colonial town of Antigua. The robbery took place in February of last year, when armed men entered the church as it was closing, and tied up the caretaker, reported Prensa Libre.

Officials believe the gang stole the paintings to order, as they selected a series of six Passion of Christ paintings by 18th century artist Tomas de Merlo (see “Coronation of Thorns” below and “Piety” bottom) while leaving behind numerous other works of art and patrimonial artifacts, according to ElPeriodico.

The paintings are valued at approximately $300,000 each, although some experts say this is a conservative figure, reported Revue.

During the raids to arrest the men, prosecutors discovered police uniforms and several paintings, but not the de Merlo works, which they believe have already been smuggled out of the country. The arrested men now stand accused of belonging to a gang that robs houses and religious buildings, often by dressing as police officers and impersonating investigators, reported ElPeriodico.15-02-18-Guatemala-art1

InSight Crime Analysis

While the theft of art and cultural artifacts rarely attracts the same levels of attention as crimes such as drugs and arms trafficking, it is a trade worth up to $6.3 billion a year, according to estimates from a 2011 report by the Center for International Policy.

The theft of works of art and antiquities has affected a range of countries across the region, including Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico with everything from paintings to 700-year-old mummies trafficked and sold on the black market.

While many of the criminal networks that steal and traffic such cultural products are specialists who maintain contact with rich collectors, there is also evidence to suggest an overlap with drug trafficking and money laundering and the involvement of organized crime networks. In some cases, stolen artwork is even used as collateral in weapons and drug deals.15-02-25-Guatemala-art2

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