The Hidden Cost of Hoarding

If you have ever bought a “fell-off-the-truck” or faux designer accessory from a street vendor, bid for such items in an online auction, or shopped at a retail establishment whose attempt to deceive knows no bounds, you may have overcome any qualms you might have had initially to end up feeling pretty good about your purchase.  Not only have you acquired some new item which, truth be told, you wanted but probably did not really need, but you avoided paying a lot of money for it. Unfortunately in many such cases, you may be paying a hidden, incalculable cost – for you may very well have helped to fund a criminal or a terrorist enterprise.

Yesterday Serbia announced the arrest of Goran Hadzic, whose deportation to stand trial for war crimes in The Hague is now being processed, and could take place as early as tomorrow. This comes on the heels of the arrest and deportation to The Hague of Serbian General Ratko Mladic in May. Yet whereas Mladic was discovered purely by chance, we are told that Hadzic made a mistake involving the attempted sale of a stolen or counterfeit work of art, and this is what brought the authorities to his door.

Reportedly Hadzic was running out of funds, and decided to try to sell a portrait he possessed, allegedly painted by the important Italian artist Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), whose distinctive style is immediately recognizable and highly prized by collectors of early Modern Art. The painting was discovered in the home of an associate of Hadzic’s in Belgrade earlier this year. Investigators followed the trail until they located Hadzic in the forests of northern Serbia, and arrested him without a fight.

The Modigliani portrait may be genuine, and stolen, or it may be a fake; its authenticity and provenance will be investigated. The news reports I have read so far have not contained an image of it, so it is impossible to speculate. Either way, assuming Hadzic could convince a potential buyer on the black market that the painting was genuine, experts believe he could have sold it for perhaps $100,000.

This amount is far, far less than what a real Modigliani would fetch in the legitimate art market; recently Sotheby’s sold one of his paintings for nearly $70 million. Nevertheless, its sale would still be a quick source of cash for an accused war criminal on the run. Art theft and art counterfeiting are at the higher end of criminal activity, and can be used to help keep a criminal or terrorist organization solvent, by providing emergency liquidity when bank accounts are frozen or other methods of raising large quantities of cash prove too time-consuming.

Most of us are not in the position to purchase works of art on the black market, or from legitimate sellers unaware of the provenance or authenticity of the art they are selling. However as we go about our day-to-day business, we will inevitably come across people selling stolen or counterfeit goods. It is important to keep in mind that in most cases, the profits from the sale of these goods are never declared, because they are being used in part to fund other illegal activities, including the sale of illegal weapons, human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.

As the New York Times reports,

the group accused of the Madrid train bombings in 2004, which killed 191 people, had used proceeds from the sale of pirated CDs to fund their activities. The U.S. authorities have also said that another group sells counterfeit goods, including fake Viagra, to support Hezbollah, the militant group in Lebanon.

Selling fake or stolen CD’s and pills does not seem like it would rake in as much cash as selling fake or stolen art, until you get into the question of volume. It is easier to sell large quantities of fake or stolen consumer goods, by spreading the goods out over a wide distribution area, than it is to sell a single fake or stolen painting for $100,000 to a single buyer.  Yet whether the goods being sold are works of art or Mr. Happy pills, there is a common, connective thread running through them all, and that is our human weakness and love of possessions, which is becoming increasingly pronounced the more secularist our society becomes.

Materialism, alongside moral relativism and plain old selfishness, has done a truly remarkable job in rotting our society from the inside out.  The modern American’s embrace of greed and acquisitiveness is, in many cases, only limited by income, and sometimes not even then.  The more things we own, the more we feel pleased with ourselves.

It is a type of thinking which, for many, proves to be an inescapable addiction.  We have seen its extremes in the popularity of programs like “Hoarders”, where people are quite literally so overwhelmed by the amount of their possessions that they are reduced to living in conditions worse than those of an animal in the wild.  Or we can tune in to financial advice programs like “The Suze Orman Show”, where people call in asking for permission to blow their savings on a Hummer or some other overpriced monstrosity, and are shocked when the common-sense Ms. Orman tells them, “Denied!” How dare anyone deny them their right to STUFF?

This is where counterfeiters and vendors of stolen products step in, to help feed the American addiction to materialism.  They are, in effect, using one of our greatest weaknesses against us.  Yet as we have seen, the connection between those selling fake or stolen goods and those who want to commit evil acts is often very strong.

Thus, the next time you find yourself somewhere like Canal Street in New York City, or looking at an online auction or listing site where the price of a new item seems too good to be true, stop and ask yourself what you may be complicit in funding.  For you may not only be feeding an addiction, as well as morally, if not criminally, being culpable of supporting acts of theft.  You may also be funding some truly horrible movements or organizations, using your own greed against you to commit horrific and brutal acts of violence against others.

Portrait of Leopold Zborowski by Amadeo Modigliani (1919)
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

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