Art Heists: The Importance of Due Diligence for Art Collectors and Enthusiasts

Do you own artwork?  Have you transferred it into your Revocable Trust?  Mentioned it in your Last Will and Testament?  Great!  But, you may need to do more!

Art heists make for unbelievable stories;  In 2004, thieves stole the Edvard Munch Scream and Madonna  from the Norwegian Munch Museum.  In 2010, Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers was taken from the Egyptian Mahmoud Khalil Museum, a painting worth approximately $55 million dollars.  Even the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911 by Vincenzo Perugia, a former employee of the Louvre.[1]

Fortunately, most of these paintings were returned to their rightful place.  However, not all cases are solved so easily.  The ownership debate often becomes complex and can turn into a heated contest.  This is often the case because people purchase expensive artwork without first verifying ownership of the piece(s).  Passion and excitement can overcome the prudent investigation one should do before making such an important and expensive purchase.

Here are some of the ways that you can protect yourself and your beloved artwork:


It is important that when buying artwork, or when later transferring it to a child, or to a trust or other entity, that there is a written record of everyone who has owned the painting from day one to present.  This is the “provenance” of the artwork.  You must have this to be able to demonstrate, at a later date, that you are the true owner of the artwork, and that you have the right to own and display the artwork or to sell or transfer the artwork.


Besides having a complete provenance, it may be also be wise to micro-chip the artwork.  Yes, the same micro-chips which are popular for pets can be permanently implanted inside of artwork and collectibles as well.  The chip is then registered to a proprietary global database.  In the even of a theft, a simple scan by law enforcement or art dealers will reveal a chip's hidden presence.  The chip will still signal ownership even if a thief has removed or altered an item's original serial number.

Filing a UCC-1

Another action item is to file what is called a UCC-1, or a financing statement that a creditor files to give notice that it has or may have an interest in personal property of a debtor.  In the case of artwork, it allows the owner to “perfect” his or her interest in the artwork, in the event that someone later contests who owns the artwork.

Assignment of Tangible Personal Property

When you come to Altman & Associates to create and implement your estate plan, if you have created a Revocable Trust, one of the documents we often have you sign is called an Assignment of Tangible Personal Property.  This document has been developed over the years to carefully ensure that any personal property, including: household effects (furniture, furnishings, silver and objects of art), clothing jewelry, books, and more, is transferred into your Revocable Trust.  When there is valuable artwork or collectibles, we will create a more comprehensive assignment that specifically lists each piece of artwork or collectible.

The Bottom Line

If you are an art collector, be careful to verify proof of ownership and a complete provenance before making an expensive purchase, no matter how beautiful that framed scene appears in your favorite gallery.  Also, once purchased, consider the micro-chip process or filing of a UCC-1.  Finally, contact Altman & Associates to find out more about how to protect your valuable artwork and other assets.

- Aubrey Mirkin, Esq.


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