Nina Siegal has written a terrific story on that recent theft of a work by Vincent van Gogh from the Singer Laren Museum. That theft was likely a quick crime of opportunity, as the thief must have underestimated the chances of turning that work into a future profit. That’s the big takeaway from the well-reasoned piece by Siegal, who gets a former thief Octave Durham, Ursula Weitzel the lead public prosecutor for art crimes for the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service, and the art theft investigator Arthur Brand to reveal the hard truths of art theft: the art itself is a silly thing to steal.
As ‘Okkie’ Durham is quoted:
“I just did it because I saw the opportunity,” Mr. Durham said. He noticed a window at the museum that he thought would be easy to smash. “I didn’t have a buyer before I did it,” he said. “I just thought I can either sell them, or if I have a problem I can negotiate with the paintings.”
As Weitzel points out: “Unless it’s a crime of passion, usually the motive is to make money,” she said. “It’s as simple as that. People don’t steal it because they want to hang it on the wall. That kind of theft for pride or status, I haven’t seen that. It’s usually for money. Or, for safekeeping, in the event that it may be necessary.” And the hard truth of the difficulty in seeing a profit off of a theft means those stolen works stay hidden with a very low return on the market value of the work according to Brand.
In the early hours of Monday March 30, thieves broke the front glass window of the Singer Laren museum east of Amsterdam. The thief or thieves stole an early work by Vincent Van Gogh. In a press conference on Monday annnouncing the theft Singer Laren museum director Jan Rudolph de Lorm expressed shock and sadness:
I’m shocked and unbelievably annoyed that this has happened . . . . This beautiful and moving painting by one of our greatest artists stolen – removed from the community . . . . It is very bad for the Groninger Museum, it is very bad for the Singer, but it is terrible for us all because art exists to be seen and shared by us, the community, to enjoy to draw inspiration from and to draw comfort from, especially in these difficult times.
The Dutch Police announced that the work is only 25×57 centimeters, oil on paper, and was one of Van Gogh’s early works before he moved to southern France. The thief or thieves smashed the glass door entrance and set off the alarm, but were able to steal the small work before police arrived.
Most art thieves are awful people; but those responsible for this theft are especially vile. Art thefts seem to cluster around holidays and periods of inactivity. As the world looks increasingly to starve the Coronavirus of new hosts, and more and more people stay home, art museums are closed. And they are at increased risk from thefts.
The AP has a fascinating story on the investigation of missing artworks that may have been taken from the Venezuelan ambassador’s residence in Washington. At present only three works are confirmed missing, but the piece hints that others might be missing as well. The uneasy economic and political situation in Venezuela may make conditions ripe for officials and others to make off with valuable state works. Carlos Vecchio, an exiled Venezuelan politician told the AP:
This is likely just the tip of the iceberg . . . . If this is what they’ve managed to do with some artwork at a single diplomatic mission, you can imagine what they’ve done inside Venezuela.
To borrow a tired phrase, art and the status of culture is so often a canary in the coal mine. The AP story notes that:
A New York-based art dealer said that in 2012 he toured the vaults of the agency’s headquarters in downtown Caracas in the company of its vice president, who proposed unloading sculptures and paintings by well-known Spanish artists Baltasar Lobo and Manuel Valdes in exchange for kickbacks. The collection was commercially attractive but poorly cared for, with canvasses piling up on emergency stairwells and exposed to sunlight, said the dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from Venezuelan government officials. He showed The Associated Press photos on his cell phone of some of the works on offer. Even in better times Venezuela was ripe for some high-stakes museum heists. A painting by the French artist Henri Matisse, “Odalisque in Red Pants,” went missing around two decades ago from the Museum of Contemporary Art and was replaced by a badly-produced fake. The original was discovered in 2012 in a Miami hotel room and returned by the FBI to Venezuela’s government two years later. A Cuban man and a Mexican woman were arrested trying to sell the painting to undercover FBI agents in Miami Beach, but who was behind the theft, and exactly when it even took place, remains a mystery. Today, the museum, which boasted the largest collection of contemporary art in Latin America when it was founded in the 1970s, is a shadow of its former glory. Galleries are mostly empty, security guards nowhere to be found and the artwork exposed to the tropical heat after the air conditioning units were damaged in the frequent blackouts ravaging the capital. One of the museum’s highlights, a collection of 147 works by Picasso, is no longer on permanent display, although it did make a brief appearance at a rare show last year titled “Comrade Picasso” that stressed the Spanish artist’s communist activism. For the museum’s once loyal promoters, who were removed by Chávez in a cultural purge 18 years ago, it is a recent photo that went viral on social media of a bucket collecting water from a leaky gallery ceiling that best sums up the current state of neglect. A few blocks away, at the century-old Museum of Fine Arts, the situation is even more desperate. Only about a third of its 18 galleries are open to the public; the rest have been closed for months for renovations, although there’s no sign any are taking place.
One of the times when thefts of art are most common is surrounding holidays and festive events. The most obvious example is of course the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft. The same goes for large homes as well. Tony Buzbee, a successful Houston trial attorney found himself the victim of a home burglary early Monday morning. He had apparently had a Superbowl party at his large mansion the evening before, and discovered a man riding away on a moped from his garage at around 6 a.m. on Monday. He discovered that an estimated $21 million worth of goods was stolen, including this art:
Pablo Picasso’s ‘Femme Accoudee’ painting, valued at $216,611
A Fernand Leger painting, ‘Paysage au coq rouge’, valued at $1,284,015
Pierre Bonnard’s ‘Jeune Femme au Chapeau noir,’ valued at $832,125.00
Jean Pierre Cassigneul’s painting, ‘Femme en Vert,’ valued at $111,563
Childe Hassam’s ‘California Hills in Spring’ painting, valued at $985,000.
Buzbee has had trouble keeping his art safe before. In 2017, a first date with a Dallas court reporter got out of hand and she allegedly, in a drunken frenzy, started throwing sculpture and damaged a couple of Andy Warhol paintings when Buzbee tried to call her a ride home.
Locally, Buzbee has a reputation as a colorful trial lawyer apart from his art troubles. In 2016 he hosted a fundraiser for Donald Trump, and he’s currently running a Trumpian mayoral campaign. He has netted some fantastically high sums of money in a number of high profile trials, but also gained notoriety for parking a M4A4 Sherman Tank, dating to WWII, in front of his home. That street is River Oaks Boulevard, one of the wealthiest streets in Houston, and probably in all of the United States.
But he continues to have a hard time securing his art.
What was stolen from Tony Buzbee’s River Oaks mansion, ABC13 Houston (2019), https://abc13.com/5124186/ (last visited Feb 7, 2019);
In 1985 this work of art by Willem de Kooning was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of art. The thieves entered the museum when it opened, the day after Thanksgiving. One of the thieves, a woman, distracted the museum security guard, while a man went upstairs and cut the canvas from the frame. The work has now been returned, and the story of the theft and recovery is pretty remarkable. The reporting indicates that the work very likely was stolen as a prize for a couple’s private collection, hidden in plain sight behind their bedroom door.
The painting was recently discovered in the estate of Rita Alter after her death. Rita and her husband Jerry may have been the thieves. The Arizona Republic reports:
Jerry and Rita Alter spent Thanksgiving Day 1985 with family in Tucson.
A newly discovered photo from the gathering shows them smiling side by side at the dinner table, plates of pumpkin pie in front of them.
Jerry was a retired music teacher and Rita a speech pathologist; a couple of New Yorkers in their 50s who had moved to rural New Mexico.
A day after the photo was taken, a valuable painting by the artist Willem de Kooning was taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. Officials believed the thieves — a man and a woman — distracted a guard, cut the painting from the frame, rolled it up and carried it out of the museum under a coat.
The thieves and the painting disappeared without a trace.
Composite sketches, in hindsight, resemble the faces in the Thanksgiving photo, down to their position side by side.
Here’s a terrific local news documentary on the theft, which hints that there may have been other thefts:
The Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA, has since 1990 granted artists moral rights to their works of art. At least in the United States. Other nations have granted these moral rights to their artists for far longer. These are non-economic rights which prevent mutilation or destruction of works of art, and VARA lasts for the lifetime of the artist. Unfortunately much of the language of VARA is cumbersome and has relied on judicial massaging to reach a workable framework. And even despite this massaging, the concept of moral rights have not been favorably received in most courts. So it is noteworthy when an artist is able to successfully invoke the protections of VARA.
Such appears to be the case with respect to this work, “The Illuminated Mural” which was created on the side of this building on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit in 2009. At the time, Craig had received an agreement from the owner of the building that the mural would remain there for at least 10 years. When the building was sold to a new owner, the mural was jeopardized by plans to potentially redevelop the building. So in January of 2016, Craig filed a lawsuit asking for an injunction to preserve the mural.
This week, the current owner of the building has reached an agreement with Craig that will allow the mural to remain on the side of the building.
As she told Crain’s after the settlement:
“I’m really happy we got a break-through with ‘The Illuminated Mural’ where we are able to protect the work and maintain the original contract, which was the goal,” Craig said Friday afternoon. “It’s respect for the artwork that’s there and the future of the community, and the developer as well. We reached a middle ground there that I am happy with.”
How long and what the terms of the agreement may be are not public. But this large mural has earned a reprieve.
The Associated Press reported this week that five important works stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2010 may have been destroyed. This work by Léger was apparently stolen to order, and in his zeal to capitalize on his time in the museum, the thief managed to make life considerably more difficult for his alleged co-conspirators because he stole some more very notorious works which only served to attract more attention from the authorities.
At a trial in Paris, one of the defendants, Yonathan Birn, claimed to have destroyed the works after fears that the investigation into their disappearance would lead to him.
Christa Roodt, of the University of Glasgow and the University of South Africa, and Bernadine Benson, of the University of South Africa have an article in the June issue of the South Africa Crime Quarterly examining databases for stolen art with a particular emphasis on the South African position post-Apartheid. They make a good common-sense argument in favor of a centralised database for South Africa which would assist both the market and law enforcement. Here’s the abstract:
Addressing the illicit trade in stolen works of art and other heritage items is notoriously difficult. Before thefts of heritage items can be recorded, the object in question must be identified as having special significance. The investigation of the circumstances in which such an object was acquired and the enforcement of legal and ethical standards of acquisition become unduly complicated in the absence of a comprehensive national inventory of museum holdings and of a database of stolen art and cultural objects. This article considers the development of inventories and databases in South Africa and elsewhere. We argue that cross-sectoral cooperation in sharing databases needs to improve significantly in order to boost compliance with due diligence standards. To help restore the credibility of the trade in art and cultural objects, the South African Heritage Resources Information System site must be endorsed as the centralised database for heritage crime. This would provide ready access to databases, helping art market participants, law enforcement officers and customs officials in the investigation of stolen art works.
25 years ago tonight, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum suffered a devastating loss to its collection. 13 works of art led to a FBI investigation, and a new Federal Criminal provision. But the works themselves are still lost. Today brings a slew of examinations of the theft and the subsequent investigation.
This week sees the beginning of the trial of José Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras, an electrician accused of stealing the 12th century illuminated manuscript from the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela. The Codex was taken in July, 2011 and was recovered a year later in the garage of Castiñeiras.
The Codex contains illuminated sermons, music, descriptions of the pilgrimage on the Wa;y of St. James in Galicia in Spain. It is written in Latin, and Christopher Hohler the latin is intentionally bad, so that the text serves as a kind of grammar book. Even in the 12th century it seems students needed a lively picture and satire to get them to learn it seems. Writing in 1972 Hohler wrote that anyone used to reading 12th century Latin (which I am most certainly not) will: Continue reading “Trial Begins for the theft of the Codex Calixtinus”