Caesar asks ‘what is the value of stolen art’?

The rear of the Kunsthal museum, where the thieves entered in 2012
The rear of the Kunsthal museum, where the thieves entered in 2012

In a longform piece for the New York Times magazine, Ed Caesar has a thoughtful and wonderfully-written discussion of art theft that (amazingly!) offers some new insights into a well-worn subject. Here is a taste, but the whole piece is worth a read:

Still, the concept of art as collateral is tricky. The best chance for a painting to express a monetary value would seem to be from a ransom. But how often do insurers make payouts to criminals? Robert Korzinek, the fine-arts underwriter who insured the Kunsthal claim, says that his organization is not in the business of paying for the return of stolen art. It sometimes pays for “information leading to the return” of a painting, but the sums involved are small and distributed only with the approval of local law enforcement. The underwriter says there is a belief among criminals, however, that large payments are made regularly, and because of this, they often use paintings as part of their “complex trades.”

“All markets work on confidence,” Korzinek says. “If you have a perception that there will be value attached to that object, then you can use it as a commodity. . . . I can sit here and say we don’t pay ransoms, but people don’t believe it.”

One reason for that is a well-known case in the early 2000s when the Tate Gallery in London successfully negotiated for the return of two J. M. W. Turners that were stolen in 1994 while on loan. Having bought back the title to the paintings from the insurers, the Tate delivered a vast sum of money — around £3.5 million, or $5.6 million — to a lawyer named Edgar Liebrucks, who used the money to help secure the paintings for the museum. This payment was for “information leading to the return,” but some in the art world interpreted it as a ransom. (Korzinek calls the Turners situation a “one off.” British and German authorities approved the exchange.)

  1. Ed Caesar, What Is the Value of Stolen Art?, The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2013.

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