A Profile of Vjeran Tomic


Georges Braque, 1906, L’Olivier près de l’Estaque (The Olive tree near l’Estaque)

In 2010 Vjeran Tomic managed to pull off an improbable heist. During a series of late night visits, he managed to make off with five important works from the Musée d’Art Moderne, including Pastoral by Henri Matisse, Woman with a Fan by Modigliani, Pablo Picasso’s Dove with Green Peas, and George Braques Olive Tree near Estaque. These works were always going to be difficult to sell, leading many to speculate they might have been destroyed.

Writing for the New Yorker, Jake Halpern speaks with Tomic and in a downright readable profile, attempts to figure out why. Here’s an excerpt:


Many of the luxurious apartments that Tomic broke into had valuable paintings, but he tried to resist taking them, knowing that they would be difficult to unload. “To sell them was dangerous, and I didn’t have reliable sources abroad in order to flog them to collectors or receivers,” he told me. Occasionally, though, the allure of the art proved overwhelming, and Tomic took what he found—including, he says, works by Degas and Signac. “A decent amount passed through my home,” he wrote. He hid some pieces in a cellar, “and some stayed with me for a long time, on the wall, and it’s in these cases that I fell in love.”
This might sound like braggadocio, but Tomic did make off with some masterpieces. In the fall of 2000, in an episode that subsequently made the papers in France, he used a crossbow with ropes and carabiners to sneak into an apartment while its occupants were asleep and stole two Renoirs, a Derain, an Utrillo, a Braque, and various other works—a haul worth more than a million euros.


Jake Halpern, The French Burglar Who Pulled Off His Generation’s Biggest Art Heist, The New Yorker, Jan. 7, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/01/14/the-french-burglar-who-pulled-off-his-generations-biggest-art-heist [https://perma.cc/M7FK-M39R].

Its a terrific profile, and if you enjoyed it, it recalls another terrific read, David Grann’s profile of the prolific aging bank robber Forrest Tucker.

Stéphane Breitwieser alleged to have committed more thefts


Sibylle of Cleves at the time of her betrothal to Electoral Prince John Frederick, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526. This work was stolen by Breitwieser in 1995 from a castle in Baden-Baden.

The notorious art thief Stéphane Breitwieser who committed numerous thefts in France, Switzerland, and Germany between 1995 and 2001 is alleged to have continued committing crimes after his release from prison. He worked as a waiter travelling around Europe, and stole on average once every 15 days a quantity of art estimated to total $1.4 Billion. In 2006 he wrote an account of his thefts. But that book has not it seems sold very well, or occupied Breitwieser’s time.

Vincent Noce reports for the Art Newspaper that:

He had been under surveillance since 2016 when he offered a 19th-century paperweight on eBay. Several such objects were stolen from the crystalware museum in Saint Louis, owned by the fashion house Hermès. At his house in the city of Marmoutier, police also discovered roman coins from an archeological museum and other pieces from local and German galleries; €163,000 in cash was stashed in buckets at his mother’s home.


Serial art thief Stéphane Breitwieser arrested—again, The Art Newspaper (Feb. 14, 2019), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/serial-art-thief-stephane-breitwieser-arrested-again [https://perma.cc/NR7T-97LN].

Successful Trial Attorney, Unsuccessful Art Owner

La Plaine de Gennevilliers, by Claude Monet

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
  • Claude Monet’s ‘La Plaine de Gennevillers’ painting, valued at $1,273,125 (auctioned at Christies in 2006)
  • 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.

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