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Last Updated: Monday, 23 August 2004, 10:03 GMT 11:03 UK
What happens to stolen art?
Sean Connery as James Bond
James Bond's Dr No is unlikely to have been behind the heist
A gang of robbers is sitting on a version of Edvard Munch's The Scream - valued at between $60m (32.9m) and $75m (41.1m) - after bundling it out of a Norwegian museum.

But what can they do with it - and would anyone buy it?

When James Bond villain Dr No displayed Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington in his lair, he launched the myth of masterpieces being "stolen to order" for criminal masterminds.

The painting had just been stolen in real life and the joke for viewers was that Dr No had been behind the heist all along.

Now, every time a high-profile work of art is stolen, the possibility of it being stolen to order by a Mr Big is raised.

It looks good in the movies - but does not happen in real life, according to Jean-Pierre Jouanny, an expert in Interpol's stolen art section.

Instead, there are limited possibilities for a thief with a famous stolen painting on his hands.

The most likely is that it will be held for ransom, with demands for money in exchange for the painting's return, Mr Jouanny told BBC News Online.

Stephane Breitwieser
Stephane Breitwieser stole art worth 1bn for his own pleasure

"I have been working in this field for 25 years now and very often we have requests for money to exchange the painting."

Well-publicised loot is impossible to sell on the legal market, he said - but as for "the black market, we never know".

The other possibility, Mr Jouanny said, was that the thief may just like the painting.

One man, Stephane Breitwieser, 32, stole hundreds of works of art worth 1bn from galleries in France, Germany and Switzerland to hang on his own walls, he said.

But he lived with his mother, who destroyed them because she was afraid the police would find them.

Art and antiques worth 300m-500m are stolen in the UK every year, according to the National Criminal Intelligence Service - most by "low level criminals".

They won't be able to sell it - certainly not in this country
Ossian Ward
ArtReview magazine

But the size of the global art market is also attractive to organised gangs - and stolen items can be moved around the world "with a low risk of detection", a spokesman for the service said.

"We know that organised criminals steal art and antiques to raise funds for other crime," the spokesman said.

And if cash is not forthcoming, gangs have been known to use paintings in deals for weapons or drugs.

On 27 August last year, thieves snatched Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna with the Yarnwinder, thought to be worth about 30m, from Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland.

Art critic Brian Sewell later said the name Leonardo da Vinci on the frame was enough to tempt "any idiot thief".

Sometimes they may be offered much later when people think the dust has settled
John Radcliffe
Art Loss Register

But "there isn't a market for it", he said. Anybody walking into a shop or auction house with it would be arrested on the spot, he said.

And no "sensible private collector would take such a risk", he said. "It is too famous."

Ossian Ward, editor of ArtReview magazine, said the da Vinci raid was most likely "a bungled heist".

"They probably saw it was a Leonardo, thought they would steal it, without realising that they won't be able to sell it - certainly not in this country."

The thieves were "stuck with it", he said because everyone in the art world knew it was stolen.

John Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register - which tracks and recovers stolen art - agreed that criminal masterminds did not get masterpieces stolen to order.

"There is not some criminal sitting in Switzerland with a wonderful collection on his wall," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"The great majority of collectors want to show people what they have."

But the da Vinci was "not necessarily impossible" to sell, he said.

"Sometimes they may be offered much later when people think the dust has settled and people are prepared to pay for them."

Criminals may try to pass stolen art off as a very good copy of the original.

Or they may get fed up of waiting and hand them back, he said.

A Cezanne of similar value was recently recovered after being kept by the thieves in a bank vault for 20 years.

"They eventually came to the conclusion that they wanted to get rid of it.

"The recovery rate for really good pictures is in excess of 20% - but you may have to wait 30 years," Mr Radcliffe said.

The BBC's David Sillito
"The Munch gallery hopes they will see their paintings again"

Interpol's Jean-Pierre Jouanny
"Very often we have requests for money"

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