Last month, administrators at the Boston Public Library discovered that a $600,000 engraving by Dürer and a $30,000 etching by Rembrandt had gone missing. It set off a media firestorm, the director of the museum resigned, and then … a few weeks after the works went missing, they were found, misfiled, 80 feet away from where they was supposed to be. 

The works’ disappearance and the subsequent panic underscored how helpless law enforcement can be when art—an easily transportable, largely untraceable commodity—is stolen. But not every artwork is created equal, and neither are heists. The quality of the art, it turns out, profoundly affects how the art is pursued, which makes intuitive sense: The greater the masterpiece, the greater the uproar over its disappearance. Only one thing stays consistent: Once art is stolen, there’s an abysmally small chance of getting it back.

Major Heists

Most people are familiar with the big ones. There’s the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, in which 13 works were taken and which has gone unsolved for 25 years; there’s the 2010 robbery of Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Matisse, and Leger paintings from the Paris Museum of Modern Art, where one of the suspects—as reported by Le Journal du Dimanche—apparently panicked, destroyed the art, and then put the remnants in the trash (though according to the article, lawyers for  the suspect refused to confirm this theory); and there was the 2012 Rotterdam Kunsthal heist, where yet more modern work by Gaugin, Matisse, Monet, Freud, and Picasso were stolen. The art was reportedly stored in Romania with one of the suspects’ mothers, who claims to have incinerated the paintings in her kitchen stove.

What do these heists have in common? Start with the price tag—today, the paintings from the Gardiner Museum would be worth an estimated $300 million; the Paris Museum of Modern Art paintings were valued close to €500 million($561 million), according to the Guardian; and the Rotterdam museum's works were (conservatively) estimated at more than €50 million. Not coincidentally, each theft generated an intense amount of publicity. (“Musee d'Art Moderne art theft” generates around 2.5 million search results on Google.) That kind of scrutiny, says Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the art theft program manager for the FBI, makes it “very hard to sell stolen work.” Plus, the more prominent the artwork, the less likely a thief is to sell it. “There are no buyers for masterworks,” says Anthony Amore, director of security at the Gardner Museum and the author of such books as The Art of the Con and Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists. “People talk about paintings selling for 10 percent of their value on the black market,” he says. “But masterpieces are still too expensive even at 10 percent—no one’s going to spend millions for a work they can never show anyone.”

That’s one reason that major art heists, according to Magness-Gardiner, “are rare. Or I’d go even further and say very rare,” she says. “Honestly, most of what I see are burglaries that don’t target certain paintings or prints; they target wealthy houses.” And those thefts have very different results.

Incidental Burglaries

“I tend to look at art theft in three categories,” says Jordan Arnold, a managing director at K2 Intelligence, an art risk advisory practice with headquarters in New York. “There’s the ‘cave hit,’ the ‘fire sale,’ and the ‘long bet.’” The cave hit, says Arnold, is closest to a targeted art heist, wherein a group of people target specific art to put it in some sort of underground collection. Unsurprisingly, this is the least frequent type of theft—more likely to occur regularly in Bondfilms than in real life. More common is the fire sale. It’s “the opportunistic criminal, where they’re looking to flip the work to a fence or unscrupulous dealer,” Arnold says. This often happens when someone robs a house, sees an artwork, takes it, and tries to get rid of it fast. Finally, the long bet is when “a thief holds onto the art and hopes that it either goes unreported or the trail goes cold,” Arnold says. “Then the thief will try to sell it some years later to a proper gallery and claim it’s inherited.”

So: How lucrative is it for the thief? “Very,” says Turbo Paul Hendry, a former art thief who now lectures on art crime and runs the blog art hostage. “Ninety-five percent of art theft is from private residences, and those items are normally $10,000 or less. Once they’re stolen, they’re passed through the hands of middlemen and reappear for their full market value.” Hendry cites the example of a Meissen porcelain figurine. “You might have 500 or 1000 versions of the same figure,” he says. “Who’s to say which is stolen and which is not?”

On the rare occasion that a multimillion-dollar work—a Picasso, say—is stolen, Hendry says that the thief makes “pennies on the dollar.” Still, he says, “if a $10 million painting sells for $100,000, that’s still pretty good for just a night’s work.”