This weekend I’ve had a chance to finally finish Loot: Inside the World of Stolen Art, by Thomas McShane with Dary Matera. McShane worked as an undercover agent for the FBI for 36 years, and recovered a number of works of art. In order to win the confidence of the handlers of the stolen works, McShane had to adopt aliases, most notably Thomas Bishop, the elegantly dressed art buyer.
The book starts strong, revealing the recovery of Rembrandt’s the Rabbi. The theft from the Bonnat Museum was “[a]s is so often the case with art thefts…a crime of opportunity rather than precision planning. On 1 March 1971, a young French art student named Robert LeBec visited the Bonnat Museum as he often did to study the brushtrokes of the ancient masters.” The travels of the work reveal a great deal about art theft. The work was very easy to steal, but the handlers were unable to unload it, and it seemed to cause them nothing but trouble. I enjoyed the description of smaller art museums as “reminiscent of the ‘easy jug’ banks American bandit John Dillinger robbed with impunity 40 years earlier. Security was lax or non-existent. Alarm systems, if present, were rudimentary and easily overcome. The atmosphere was friendly and hands-on.”
Most of the book accounts how McShane transformed himself into his art buying alter-ego. He would invariably set up a “buy”, then authenticate the work, checking the brush strokes, paint composition, nails on the canvas; and then would signal the other agents listening in to make the bust. Interestingly McShane was always arrested with the thieves, to preserve his cover.
The stories are interesting, and fun to read. The book was great summer reading, but unfortunately it never seems to go below the surface. Part of that may be that McShane is unable or unwilling to reveal what goes on behind the scenes. For example, he would always get “tipped” that someone was looking to unload a Picasso or major work. It would be interesting to know how difficult it really is to fence stolen artwork. McShane gives a baseline. A thief can usually expect to get 10% of a stolen painting’s value. But how often to museums cave in and pay a ransom. What about insurance companies? Is it more important to recover the work or catch the thief?
One of the most interesting chapters involved Picasso’s still-missing Man with the Purple Hat. It was a 6 foot bright-purple canvas which was stolen on the way from Houston’s Jasper Museum to Manhattan. The work was sealed in a truck in Houston, but when it arrived in New York the painting was missing. The authors argue this is a likely “Dr. No” theft, where someone commissions a theft: “He, and she, exist all right. From Riyadh to Beverly Hills, they’re out there gazing up at their special prizes each and every day, proving once again that ‘stolen apples taste the sweetest.’ They’re just extremely difficult to catch.” There is no hard evidence that these evil geniuses are out there, but McShane should command some deference for his long service and many recoveries.
In the book’s second half, some momentum is lost, as the prose gets a bit muddled; and for some reason the author’s start describing each new character based on their likeness to Hollywood and tv Celebrities like Kojak and the like. Some of this is regained at the end with McShane’s take on the largest unsolved art theft: the theft of 13 works from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. I enjoyed the speculation on that theft a great deal. But shockingly, if the thieves have sold the works on, the statute of limitations for the theft has expired, so the actual thieves may be able to collect on part of the $5 million reward. One wonders how often that goes on, but seldom is a full and open account given.
It’s a fun read, but ultimately it left me wanting more substance. In the epilogue a call is made for increased security and criminal penalties. But how? That does not seem to provide a complete picture, as museums are often strapped for funds, and they have to walk a balance between access to the public and security. No discussion of provenance was given, or how effective stolen art databases have become. I was also disappointed more was not said about current efforts at the FBI, including the Art Crime Team which seems to have had some notable successes. The authors seem to think this is still not enough, claiming that only one agent works full time on the problem. I had believed it was closer to half a dozen, but perhaps many of these agents have other duties. In any event it is a fun read, has some exciting stories to tell, but ultimately does not help us arrive at a better way of actually thwarting art theft.