The Art of Crime


Time to talk about one of my favourite art subjects again... the art heist. I have mentioned many times on this blog that various paintings have been either forged or stolen, and I thought it was about time to pull together a list of the more epic and often forgotten heists.

An estimated five billion dollars’ worth of art and antiques are stolen each year. Of course, some private collectors on the wrong side of legitimacy might have their stolen art stolen too, so the real figure could be much higher than this.

Storm of the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606 – 1669) and The Concert also by a Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) were among the most well-known works of art stolen over the years, with those particular two paintings being stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990. In that particular heist, biggest art heist in history, some 13 works were stolen at a value of around $300m. But other artists have had many of their works stolen over the years.

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) had a landscape stolen during a New Year’s Eve celebration in 1999, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) also had work stolen, and a Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) another Dutch artist’s work was stolen during a strike leaving the Greek National Art Gallery short on staff.

It seems to me that many Dutch artist’s work has been stolen over the years and this is not all that surprising given the pedigree of the Dutch Masters. Van Gogh, frequently has work stolen, in fact at least 13 pieces of his work have been stolen and recovered, and two of them have been stolen and recovered twice.

Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers is still unfound, a work which has a value of around $50m. It is believed to have been painted in 1887, some three years before his suicide. This piece has to be somewhere, I cannot imagine the current illegal owner not having it hanging in pride of place on the wall. Either that, or it is likely that it remains in some vault, or maybe even in someone's loft!

Not all of the missing art was stolen from Boston, although you would be forgiven for thinking so, Van Gogh’s Congregation Leaving the reformed Church in Nuenen was stolen from the Van Gogh museum in 2002.

There are other works which are rumored to have either been destroyed or lost, and it is these which are possibly more susceptible to being forged. The Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (also known as The Adoration) is a painting from 1609 by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, stolen on the 16th October 1969, the exact day I was born, from Palermo in Sicily. This is a huge work, measuring almost six square metres. It was taken out of its frame, and there is still a reward today.

So how do you track stolen art down? There are specialist divisions within crime fighting agencies that do just this. Their methods of detection are unknown to many, but they clearly work. The FBI for example has a specialist Art Crime team of around 15 Special Agents, supported by trial attorneys for prosecutions. The FBI also operates the Stolen Art File for use by law enforcement agencies around the world. The FBI’s top ten art crimes are all catalogued in the website. The following links will take you to their top ten.

FBI Top 10 Art Crimes

Iraqi Looted and Stolen Artefacts

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft

Theft of Caravaggio’s Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco

Theft of the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius

The Van Gogh Museum Robbery

Theft of Cezanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise

Theft of the Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Murals, Panels 3-A and 3-B

Theft from the Museu Chacara do Céu

Theft of Van Mieris’ A Cavalier

Theft of Renoir Oil Painting

Interpol is another law enforcement agency who have dedicated teams to track down art and other cultural and historical assets. They have a significantly large sized database which only specific people can access. Interpol published their first Notice of Stolen Art in 1947, but the general public are able to access parts of the database openly. The areas for public access cover:

• The most recent stolen works of art reported to INTERPOL;

• Recovered works of art;

• Works of art that have been recovered but remain unclaimed by their owners (if they're taking up space I will happily look after them);

• Stolen Afghan items;

• Stolen Iraqi items;

• Stolen Syrian items.

They also have a number of posters showing the latest stolen artworks and I have to admit, I was on the site for hours in the hope that I could identify a piece, claim a huge reward, and live a life of luxury on a small island that is very under populated, but also has good WiFi.

Unfortunately I didn’t recognise anything, but it is an interesting read. You can find the posters on their web site here. They are almost pieces of art themselves, and I dare say that if someone as enterprising as notorious US "appropriation" artist Richard Prince who caused controversy after he sold works of art using Instagram pictures from people's feeds without asking them for permission or sharing the profits, got hold of them, well good luck. I'm reasonably confident that Interpol wouldn't be quite so timid in their response!

Of course, it is not just crime prevention agencies that recover stolen art. There are a number of private recovery organisations that get some seriously good results. Often taking a number of years to track the works down, the private recovery organisations can earn massive fees for the recovery from both the owners, and the insurers. Think Airplane Repo for art. If the History Channel want to run with that, I at least want a credit!

Some organisations have been criticised for their tactics, but there are many, many, professional organisations who will track down that missing piece, but they will do so for a price. What makes this work much more difficult is that some pieces are destined to never be found. Art theft is a serious business, and it’s big, big money. The risks are high, but it doesn’t seem to put the most determined criminals off from carrying out major heists. These heists are rarely opportunistic, they can take many months or even years of planning.

The question is, is this really a victimless crime as some criminals have indicated? The answer to that is a resounding NO. It is never a victimless crime. If I can't see it in a museum, or the owner can't see it in his or her own collection, there are two immediate victims.

Criminals play on the fact that they are simply making what they describe as the fat cat insurance companies pay out. The reality is that those fat cat insurance companies are run on the ground by people like you and me and who are desperately trying to make a living. It also pushes up costs of insurance for all of us. Many of those insurance companies have to pay out to those who are making everyday household claims, and they pay out to those who have lost art valued at millions of dollars. As a result, premiums for the rest of us are affected.

Art theft also takes away our ability to view the work. I have visited galleries where famous works once hung, only to see the frame with a big open space where the art should be and an explanatory note to say that what once hung is the space is no more. It was stolen on such and such a date and has yet to be recovered.

A New York Times article back in 2013, described that making money from stolen artwork is complex. Those who try to sell stolen works generally fall into two categories, the naïf who steals a painting but has very few plans to move the work on beyond the theft. The article goes on to say that a more sophisticated criminal on the other hand, recognises that a pilfered masterpiece is a unique commodity and that in order to profit from it, he needs to think more like a derivatives trader than a pickpocket. You can read the full article here

But stolen art does get recovered. An overseas tip led FBI investigators to the recovery of art from one of the biggest art heists in Los Angeles. The tip, received six years after the heist led to the return of nine stolen paintings, including works by Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera, collectively worth as much as $24 million in 2014.

A Picasso painting was found in Newark airport nearly a decade after it was stolen. The cubist composition entitled ‘La Coiffeuse’ or ‘The Hairdresser’ was sent from Belgium with the note ‘Art and Craft, Merry Christmas’ with declared value of 30 euros when it was intercepted by US customs earlier this year.

Pablo Picasso tops the list from The Art Loss Register which set out the top ten most stolen artists back in 2012.

1) Pablo Picasso – 1,147

2) Nick Lawrence – 557

3) Marc Chagall – 516

4) Karel Appel – 505

5) Salvador Dali – 505

6) Joan Miro – 478

7) David Levine – 343

7) Andy Warhol – 343

9) Rembrandt – 337

10) Peter Reinicke – 336

Picasso it seems is a massively multiple victim of theft. But often the reality is that a good stolen art work by a renowned artist often becomes even more valuable when it is recovered. Just like the art of those masters who have passed becomes ever more valuable and often priceless once the artist has died.

As fascinating as the subject is, art crimes are frequent and people are always affected along the way. Be it financially, physically, or by virtue that the art is no longer accessible to art lovers. An art heist is never a victimless crime.

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