Church theft of a Guercino in Modena

"Madonna with the saints John the Evangelist and Gregory the Wonderworker", 1639, by the Italian artist Guercino
“Madonna with the saints John the Evangelist and Gregory the Wonderworker”, 1639, by the Italian artist Guercino

Holidays and festivals always bring increased risks to works of art. Perhaps because the usual traffic of locals and visitors is reduced, and there aren’t as many who might notice something that would be odd or uncharacteristic. I’m not sure if that is one of the contributing factors to the theft of this Guercino depicting St. John the Evangelist and the Madonna. The work was stolen from the Church of San Vincenzo in Modena Italy earlier this week. Whether the start of Italy’s Ferragosto holiday this week led to the Church being more at risk is just speculation on my part, but may have been a contributing factor. Perhaps the biggest factor is the lack of funding at the Church, and the inability to pay the bills on a security system installed to protect the works in the church. As reported by Hannah McGivern in the Art Newspaper:

According to the parish priest Gianni Gherardi, who reported the theft, the church could not afford to insure the painting. Its alarm system—fitted during a renovation in the mid-1990s that was financed by the local bank Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena—had been inactive since the funds dried up, said Monsignor Giacomo Morandi, the vicar of the archdiocese. 

Church theft is a difficult problem in Italy, with so many churches filled with so much amazing art, hardening all these sites to thwart theft is an expensive and difficult undertaking. Church art theft usually involves smaller minor objects like candlesticks, smaller paintings of lesser value, and other ecclesiastical art. This theft appears to be of a much higher profile. This high profile of course makes it more of a headache for the thieves. There is no legitimate market any time soon for this work.


O’Donnell on the ‘sightings’ of Gardner thefts

Attorney Nicholas O’Donnell rightly skewers the FBI’s recent media blitz on the so-called “confirmed sightings” of works stolen from the Gardner Museum:

If my skepticism sounds familiar, it is because there was a similar episode last year, when the FBI claimed “with a  high degree of confidence” that it knew who had stolen the paintings.  That story, as has often been the case, was released around the anniversary of the theft (though without mentioned that coincidence).  Richard DesLauriers, the Special Agent in Charge in Boston, said then: “The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft,”

The FBI theory seems to be this: an informant in a Dorchester garage accused Merlino of being involved, and someone else in the same garage knew Gentile, who had some police paraphernalia in his house.  Really?  Put that way, it is pretty clear why the FBI has not arrested anyone or offered more information: it cannot prove any of this.

The FBI said a year ago that it knew who was responsible, but clearly does not want to accuse Gentile directly.  Instead, it is essentially asking the public to connect the fact that Gentile has some relation to Philadelphia, to the uncorroborated offers for sale in an “I’m just saying” sort of way.

The Gardner heist is a civic tragedy in here in Boston.  It struck at one of our most treasured institutions.  I can still picture the full-page headline in the Boston Globe the day that it happened (the Art Law Report was just a gleam in the eye of a local high school student then).  But these recycled stories are not advancing the ball.  If the FBI thinks it has a case against a responsible person, it should move on that information.  If it is simply going to make insinuations, it should stop.

Nicholas O’Donnell, FBI Claims to Have “Confirmed Sightings” of Stolen Gardner Artwork, But Offers Only Stale Information and Conjecture, Art Law Reort (May 22, 2014),

Vermeer's "The Concert"
Vermeer’s “The Concert”


Have you seen Tutankhamun’s sister?

This Limestone figurine "A Daughter of the Pharaoh Akhenaten" was stolen in August 2013
This Limestone figurine “A Daughter of the Pharaoh Akhenaten” was stolen in August 2013

Egypt has issued an alert asking for the return of this statue of Tutankhamun’s sister. This and close to 1000 other objects were stolen from the Mallawi City Museum in Egypt in August. The publicity given to this object in particular is a very good idea, as it will likely drive down any possible licit market for this stolen object, and may perhaps compel its current possessors to return it and any other objects. There have been a reported 600 other objects returned, but there are many many other objects still missing. Egypt gave UNESCO a 300 page list in Arabic of objects which were taken.

In a piece describing the looting and the destruction in Egypt generally in the last 3 years, Richard Spencer offers accounts from those on the ground in Egypt during the Mallawi theft:

“We heard what had happened in Cairo and started to see the gangs gather,” said Jaihan Nessim, a curator at Mallawi Museum. It was clearly in a dangerous position, next to the city’s municipal offices and round the corner from the police station.

“Then there were big crowds, and they started firing into the air.”

Eventually the staff closed the museum and left it in the protection of the tourist police, but they were attacked and driven off. Within hours, the museum had been almost totally wrecked, with attempts to defend it beaten away. A ticket seller was among those killed in the unrest.

The looting was continuing when Miss Hanna arrived three days later.

Eventually, the provincial chief of tourist police, Col Abdulsamie Farghali, called members of his own family to stand guard while she and colleagues inspected the damage and took what could be salvaged to safe storage.

She said she asked two teenagers what they were doing. “They said, ‘The government is destroying their people, so we are destroying this because it belongs to the government’,” she said.

Of 1,089 exhibits, only 46 remained, items too heavy to carry off, and some of those were smashed and burned. Wooden sarcophagi simply split open. An Old Kingdom, 23rd Century BC statue of Pharaoh Pepi and his queen had parts of the faces broken off and its pedestal split.


Spencer, Richard. “Tutankhamun’s Sister Goes Missing.Telegraph, November 14, 2013.

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.

Calling the Kunsthal Museum’s security into question

An interesting bit of news from one of the six Romanian art thieves on trial for thefts from the Kunsthal museum. Those thefts saw works by Gauguin, Monet, Picasso stolen. At the time security experts pointed to flaws in the security of the building, despite its beauty.

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

Criticizing the security, Ton Cremers noted that securing valuable artworks in the Kunsthal was a ‘nightmare’:

As a gallery it is a gem. But it is an awful building to have to protect. If you hold your face up to the window at the back you have a good view of the paintings, which makes it all too easy for thieves to plot taking them from the walls…

Now it seems that one of the defendants, Radu Dogaru, is going to use the flaws in the security of the works to defend himself. The defendant and his lawyer is quoted by AFP:

“I could not imagine that a museum would exhibit such valuable works with so little security”, Dogaru told the court on Tuesday.
“We can clearly speak of negligence with serious consequences”, defence lawyer Catalin Dancu told journalists.
“If we do not receive answers about who is guilty” for the failure of the security system at the museum, “we are considering hiring Dutch lawyers to start a legal case in The Netherlands or in Romania.”
The lawyer explained that, if found guilty of negligence, the Kunsthal “would have to share the burden of compensation” with his client, who faces millions in claims from insurers.

The Art Loss Register profiled in the New York Times

The Art Loss Register and Julian Radcliffe got the New York Times treatment last week. I think it was an accurate portrayal of the ALR and its role in the art market. I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in many of the same art crime tropes that some are unable to resist in a piece like this. Things like Radcliffe’s physical appearance, his almost spy-novel backstory, and other aspects distracted me from some of the good reporting in the piece.

The main point holds true I think, that nobody really loves the ALR, but they do perform a service for the Art Market. Much of the criticism lobbied against the organization is entirely justified, but many critics point to the fact that the ALR not only is a database, but also acts as a stolen art recovery service, in exchange for a sizable portion of the value of the work. That has often put them in an uneasy position.

For example the incident involving a Norman Rockwell painting, ‘Russian Schoolroom’ is discussed:

Judy Goffman Cutler, an art dealer who became entangled in a Register hunt for a Norman Rockwell painting, has sued the company twice, contending that it harassed her for years in its zeal to collect a fee for recovering the work.

Mrs. Cutler had clear title to the painting in 1989, when she sold it to the director Steven Spielberg. Later it was mistakenly listed as stolen by the F.B.I. and, consequently, the Register, which tried for years to recover it.

Mrs. Cutler said that the Register pursued her even after company officials had reason to know she had done nothing wrong. Neither of her suits against the company succeeded, and she is still angry.

“They knew better but chose to follow the greedy path,” she said.

The Register has characterized its dispute with Mrs. Cutler as a misunderstanding based on faulty information it received from the F.B.I. and others that suggested that the painting was stolen.

I have heard many similar arguments and criticisms of the ALR. Dorothy King relates a similar example from last year.

Have any experience dealing with the ALR that you’d like to share? Comment below or drop me a note.

  1. Kate Taylor & Lorne Manly, Tracking Stolen Art, for Profit, and Blurring a Few Lines, The New York Times, September 20, 2013.

19 Arrested in Connection with Jade Thefts

Dawn raids in London, Sussex, Cambridgeshire, the West Midlands, Essex, and Northern Ireland have netted the arrest of 19 individuals in connection with the theft of Chinese works of art and rhinoceros horn. The arrests were connected to six thefts, which occurred over four months in 2012:

Continue reading “19 Arrested in Connection with Jade Thefts”

Chappell on Art Theft

Duncan Chappell uses the occasion of a loan exhibition of William Turner works on display at the National Gallery in Canberra—which does not include a couple of well-known stolen-then-recovered works.

He then discusses the persistent problem of stolen art:


Continue reading “Chappell on Art Theft”