A recovered de Kooning reveals more questions

“Woman-Ochre” by Willem de Kooning

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:

Antonia Farzan, A small-town couple left behind a stolen painting worth over $100 million — and a big mystery, Washington Post (Aug. 3, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/08/03/a-small-town-couple-left-behind-a-stolen-painting-worth-over-100-million-and-a-big-mystery/.
William K. Rashbaum, A de Kooning, a Theft and an Enduring Mystery, The New York Times, Dec. 905, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/09/nyregion/a-de-kooning-a-theft-and-an-enduring-mystery.html.
Anne Ryman, Who stole the $100M masterpiece? Clues emerge in year since recovery of Willem de Kooning painting, Arizona Republic (Aug. 1, 2018), https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-best-reads/2018/08/01/art-heist-woman-ochre-clues-emerge-willem-de-kooning-painting-recovered/789652002/.
Discovering de Kooning: A WFAA documentary (WFAA dir.), https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=189&v=fwvqHeb32lY.

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), http://www.artlawreport.com/2014/05/22/fbi-claims-to-have-confirmed-sightings-of-stolen-gardner-artwork-but-offers

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

-only-stale-information-and-conjecture/.

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.

The FBI Says it Has Identified Gardner Thieves

Have you seen these works? If so you might be entitled to a $5 million reward…

But the headline makes it seem a recovery is closer at hand than it may be. Every day after St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve come to expect pieces discussing the theft of $500 million worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

But today’s stories are a little different. The FBI has used today’s anniversary to “widen the aperature of awareness” of the crime through a press release, webpage, and billboards. They say they know that the art was transported to Connecticut and Philadelphia after the theft. And the FBI even says it knew who the thieves are, though they aren’t releasing that information. What they hope to accomplish is a recovery, and to do that they need a member of the public to come forward with some information. It’s a worthy goal, hopefully the attention will finally secure the return.

Here’s the FBI’s  press release, and here is the special webpage the FBI has created to announce its $5 million reward.

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

Gold Hand Sculpture Stolen from Christie’s

Auction houses are often in the news for the fantastic sums their works achieve, or for protesting they didn’t know this or that work was looted or stolen. It’s not often they are the victims of theft. This work by Turner prize-winner Douglas Gordon has been stolen from Christie’s auction house. There are fears it is likely going to be melted down for its scrap value. Given the work is solid gold, that scrap value is considerable, likely £250,000. Apparently Christie’s was not forthcoming about details of the theft to the artist, who was also the sculpture’s owner:

He said Christie’s only told him about the disappearance of the sculpture after he had spoken about the theft elsewhere. Gordon, who owns the work, said: “It is like someone borrowing your car, and then you finding out from a neighbour that it has been crashed,” he said. “It looks like I am the last person in the chain to know.” Gordon said he had first heard of the theft second-hand, from a curator, last week; a Christie’s representative contacted him on the morning of 29 November, 16 days after the crime was reported to the police. Scotland Yard confirmed it was “investigating the alleged theft of a piece of artwork from a secure warehouse in the King Street area of Westminster. The incident was first reported to police on 12 November”. A Christies’s spokesman said: “This matter is under investigation and we are in contact with all parties involved. We cannot comment further.” A source at the auction house said Gordon’s gallery had been informed right away, and that a Christie’s representative had attempted to contact the artist on 28 November. The theft from Christie’s storage facility – which claims on its website “world-class security, management and expertise” – is likely to cause significant reputational damage for the auction house. A spokesman declined to comment on arrangements at the storage facility, citing the need to keep security measures confidential. A source said: “Given the sheer volume of works of art that come in, this as an extraordinarily rare thing to happen.”

There are no reported details about the theft from the storage facility.

  1. Charlote Higgins, Turner prize-winner’s work stolen from Christie’s, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/nov/29/turner-sculpture-stolen-christies (last visited Nov 29, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Art theft with pistols, a long drive and a cemetary

                                     This photo released by the South African Police Service (SAPS) on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, shows the four paintings stolen from a museum in its capital hundreds of miles away in a cemetery under a park bench in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Brig. Marinda Mills of the SAPS told The Associated Press on Tuesday that officers found the paintings in Port Elizabeth, about 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) from Pretoria where they were stolen. (AP Photo/South African Police Service)
Four recovered works from this photo released
by the South African Police Service

Four works of art stolen from a museum in Pretoria South Africa appear to have been discarded hundreds of miles away near the coast in Port Elizabeth. On Sunday the thieves paid for their admission to the art museum and asked the curator to show them around the museum. Then, presumably after seeing what they liked they pulled out their pistols and stole five works of art. Today it seems four of the works have been recovered in a private cemetery 700 miles away. There must be an interesting story here, perhaps more details will emerge and that fifth painting will hopefully be recovered soon.

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

Reactions to the Kunsthal Theft

Yesterday we learned that the Kunsthal Museum (I’ve also heard it described as essentially a gallery) had suffered a theft of seven works of art in a late night theft, likely aided by the building’s difficult-to-secure windows. The tireless Catherine Sezgin has a good roundup of all the news reports at the ARCA blog.  Here’s some reactions from the security and law enforcement experts I found thoughtful:

Anthony Amore, the director of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston debunks the popular impression of art thieves in an Op-Ed for the New York Times:

As usual, a combination of master art thieves and faulty security was blamed. But this seductive scenario is often, in fact, far from the truth. Most of us envision balaclava-clad cat burglars rappelling through skylights into museums and, like Hollywood characters, contorting their bodies around motion-detecting laser beams. Of course, few of us have valuable paintings on our walls, and even fewer have suffered the loss of a masterpiece. But in the real world, thieves who steal art are not debonair “Thomas Crown Affair” types. Instead, they are the same crooks who rob armored cars for cash, pharmacies for drugs and homes for jewelry. They are often opportunistic and almost always shortsighted.

Chris Marinello of the Art Loss Register tells NPR’s Morning Edition:

MONTAGNE: And do insurers pay ransom?  
MARINELLO: Absolutely not, they do not want to encourage further art theft and then the thieves are going to have to go to Plan C. They usually contact me and see if I have any ability to pay them to return the works. They won’t succeed there, either. The pieces are likely to travel in the underworld at a fraction of their true value, maybe five or 10 percent, used as currency for drugs, weapons, even something called a Get Out of Jail Free card. If a criminal thinks that they’re going to be arrested, they may try to make a deal with the prosecutor for a lesser sentence, if they have information that leads to the recovery of the seven paintings.   
MONTAGNE: Is it likely than that they will resurface eventually?  
MARINELLO: Well, I have a lot of faith in the Dutch police and they are meticulous. We might see something over the next few weeks. I mean sometimes when they realize they can’t get rid of the haul that they just brought home, they just return them. But if we don’t see that happening in the next few weeks, it could be decades before these resurface.

Bob Wittman, formerly of the FBI’s art crime team talks to the Atlantic:

Here’s the story on selling stolen art. Paintings that are stolen like last night, those pieces that were taken out of the Kuhnsthal museum, are not going to get sold on any kind of market, whether it’s a black market or any kind of market. They’re going to get recovered. But what happens with pieces that are worth much less — let’s say the $10,000 and less market, pieces that aren’t well known — is a burglar goes into a home and steals a $5,000 painting. That can be sold in a flea market, that can be sold on what they call the secondary art market, because it’s not well known. And that’s the vast majority of art heists. It’s not these once a year museum thefts. It’s burglaries around the world. And that’s the major part of the art theft business and the collectibles business. Even the smaller works of art have no value if they have no provenance, authenticity, or legal title. But when you talk about pieces that are under that amount, people don’t do the due diligence. When people go in and pay $5 million for a Cézannes, they’re going to do the due diligence to make sure everything is right. If a piece is $300 at a flea market, it’s not done.

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

Massive Art Theft at the Kunsthal museum in the Netherlands

One of the 7 stolen works

In what is being called a well-planned and bold theft, thieves stole seven works in a pre-dawn theft from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. Alarms went off at the museum after 3 am, and security found there were 7 missing works.

Ton Cremers told the Dutch outlet De Volkskrant that the problem may be with the layout of the museum itself, which while great to view art is difficult to secure: “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”.

The large windows at the Kunsthal museum

Many will likely begin imagining what high sums these stolen works could bring on the market. And there will of course be much of the usual speculation about why the works were stolen and how the thieves plan to benefit from their theft. But much of that discussion is moot because these stolen works are now well-known. Images of the stolen works are surely being given to the Art Loss Register, law enforcement agencies, and art dealers, so these works can never be sold in a legitimate market. In one sense then their market value means little.

 They have a kind of value though, in that they are so precious, that the museum, the owners, and the authorities may be willing to take—or at least the thief thinks they will take—the unwise step of paying a ransom. Or other criminals may try to launder some or all of the works through different individuals, in much the same way the Leonardo Yarnwinder was transferred. As a kind of a very beautiful set of poker chips.
It might be possible that a rich mastermind has so-enjoyed these works that he or she hired thieves to steal the art.But these real-life Dr. No’s don’t really exist. I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been no convincing evidence that this is why people are stealing rare objects. Most likely of all, these beautiful clear windows made for such an easy target that the thieves stole first and will decide to worry about selling the works later.

Here is the current list of stolen works:

Pablo Picasso’s Tete d’Arlequin;
Henri Matisse’s La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune;
Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, London, and Charing Cross Bridge, London;
Paul Gauguin’s Femme devant une fenetre ouverte,
Meyer de Haan’s Autoportrait and
Lucian Freud’s Woman with Eyes Closed.

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