For centuries, art crime was relatively harmless, at least from the perspective of the global economy and international crime. Forgers fooled the occasional buyer, tomb raiders dug up what archaeologists didn't have time to reach, and the occasional nonviolent thief would steal for reasons more often ideological than fiscal. Even vandalism was dismissed as part and parcel of the ravages of war.
But since the Second World War, art crime has evolved into the third-highest–grossing annual criminal trade worldwide, behind only the drug and arms trades. Most art crime is now perpetrated either by or on behalf of organized crime syndicates, who have brought violence into art theft and turned what was once a crime of passion (think of Vincenzo Peruggia's stealing the Mona Lisa in order to repatriate it to Italy, or Kempton Bunton's stealing Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington as a protest against taxes on television sets) into a cold business. Art crime now funds, and is funded by, organized crime’s other enterprises, from the drug and arms trades to terrorism. It is no longer merely the art that is at stake, and it is no longer a crime to be admired for its elegance.
(Hat tip: Art Law Blog)