$1 Billion

Apparently, the former French waiter, and superthief Stephane Breitwieser has penned a memoir, soon to be published by French publisher Editions Anne Carrière. The work is titled Confessions d’un voleur d’art (Confessions of an Art Thief). Breitwieser stole an estimated $1 Billion worth of fine art during a 7 year spree, including this work, a 16th-century painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Sybille, Princess of Cleves,” which has been valued at between £4.2 million and £4.7 million. Most incredibly of all, his mother shredded canvases and threw a number of the pieces in a canal after learning of her son’s arrest. A Swiss court has sentenced him to 4 years, and a French court has sentenced him to 26 months.

Apparently he’s kept himself busy writing about his exploits. It’s worth noting the way a work’s fame and theft often go hand in hand. The most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa did not become famous until it was stolen in 1911. Art theft captures the imagination, and often leads to greater interest in a work. It’s hard to understand exactly why theives like Breitwieser steal art. They may be seeking fame, trying to earn money, overcome by their love of beautiful things, or filling an order for a wealthy collecter who wants a work for their own private use.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

97 Maps


Edward Forbes Smiley III, a 50-year-old former Princeton divinity student is slated to be sentenced in US District Court on October 17, after pleading guilty to the theft of cultural property. Between 1998 and 2005 he admitted to removing 97 maps from institutions and public libraries in the United States and the United Kingdom between 1998 and 2005. The maps are worth an estimated $3 million. One of the works include this 1578 Flemish map valued at $150,000. He was caught attempting to steal the map from the Yale Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library last year, after a librarian discovered an exacto knife on the floor and called the police.

Initially, one wonders at the utter lack of security at these libraries and institutions. How could someone just walk in and slice things up? On the other hand, Smiley must have acted and played his role well. He was and Ivy-league-educated map dealer, and it seems safe to assume that he looked and acted like he belonged in these places. Also, it may be tempting to throw Smiley under the bus and impose a very strict sentence. However, he did cooperate with authorities, and nearly all of the maps are going to be returned to their owners. Predictably, Library and Museum groups are urging a very stiff penalty for Smiley to discourage behavior like this in the future.

In other news, last Wednesday, 15 paintings worth and estimated £300,000 were stolen from the Clark Art Gallery in Hale, just outside Manchester, England. A reward of £250,000 has been offered for information leading to the return of the paintings.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Interesting Development from the Museum of Fine Arts

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has returned 13 artifacts to Italy, including this amphora depicting the murder of Atreus. The return gets notice in the New York Times as well. This is another in a long line of high-profile efforts by Italy to seek the return of its objects. The MFA press release points out how the museum has been at the forefront of providing provenance information of their works. Curious, I searched for a Degas painting and picked this landscape, and indeed a surprisingly detailed set of provenance information was detailed. I also looked up a Cezanne, and this work, titled Turn in the Road also had a great deal of provenance information.

This is quite a fascinating development, and one that has not manifested itself in the literature yet. Ideally, more museums will devote some resources to this kind of endeavor. It would seem to serve a number of good purposes: it may make it easier to track down the work if it one day is stolen, it may limit the potential market for the work, and it allows anyone with internet access to view the work. Last but not lease, it effectively eviscerate a lot of the criticism involving museum and the high profile return of works including MOMA and the Getty. Throwing open the doors, so to speak, and heading off criticism at the pass is a shrewd and welcome move, and seems to be a fairly recent trend.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

From Buddha to The Scream


Welcome to the first ever post on my illicit cultural property blog. I’ll try to list important new events and happenings related to cultural property and its illicit trade.

In today’s news, see this BBC piece in which Indian authorities alerted Interpol of the theft of 18 bronze Buddha statues dating from the 9th and 10th centuries from a museum in Bihar, India. A piece from India enews reveals that apparently, some of the monks are frustrated with security lapses by State authorities. Also, the statues had been slated for an exhibition in France next month, which hardly seems a coincidence. Response to the theft has been predictable, with the usual cries of “the Mafia did it” echoing throughout most of the stories. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. What exactly Interpol may be able to do about it remains to be seen. Notionally, India hopes that customs and border officials should be on the look out for the statues. Another interesting question is what kind of market there might be for these statues. We’ll return to these issues time and again, but if these pieces are so wildly publicized, it seems hard to imagine what kind of market there is for them.

However, thieves continue stealing versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Speculation exists that thefts of this kind are instigated by what we can call theft on demand, or the Thomas Crown purchaser (Pierce Brosnan, not Steve McQueen). Thieves may steal a work for a wealthy individual, who pays handsomely to have the privilege of having such a rare work on their wall.

Alternatively, some Argue that these expensive thefts are used as collateral in Mafia deals. However, without more proof, claims of that kind seem like wild speculation. Incidentally, the Munch works recently recovered are going on display briefly before their restoration. Whether the Buddha statues will be recovered like the Munch paintings remains to be seen, and may ultimately depend on the publicity devoted to their disappearance, which seems one of the likely keys to the return of the Munch paintings. Though the scream is an iconic image, there are actually 3 versions, and much of the publicity surrounding the work seems to stem from the fact that the various versions keep getting stolen.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com