The black market art world is a secretive and fascinating place.
Famous paintings, works that have been stolen, and pieces that the world has forgotten even existed change hands constantly in a series of underhanded deals and shady interactions. Interactions that usually go unnoticed by the public, unless the culprits are caught in the act, or a stolen item suddenly appears back in a museum or in an auction house. (Learn more about this world and the crazy characters that are a part of it in the books Loot and Hot Art).
That's why I was surprised to see a major black market art transaction revealed in the news this week. A group of Dutch Golden Age paintings that were stolen from the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, Netherlands more than a decade ago are apparently being held for ransom by a far-right militia group in the Ukraine. According to sources, the museum revealed this information when the group (allegedly linked to the Ukrainian secret service and high-ranking political officials) approached them asking for 50 million euros in exchange for the 24 works that are worth about 10 million euros.
When diplomatic negations and offers of a more reasonable ransom were rejected, the museum went public with the transaction, hoping that it would prevent other buyers from purchasing the paintings on the black market.
The paintings are an integral part of the Dutch artistic heritage and document an important part of the country's history. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Stay tuned for updates.