Nina Siegal has written a terrific story on that recent theft of a work by Vincent van Gogh from the Singer Laren Museum. That theft was likely a quick crime of opportunity, as the thief must have underestimated the chances of turning that work into a future profit. That’s the big takeaway from the well-reasoned piece by Siegal, who gets a former thief Octave Durham, Ursula Weitzel the lead public prosecutor for art crimes for the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service, and the art theft investigator Arthur Brand to reveal the hard truths of art theft: the art itself is a silly thing to steal.
As ‘Okkie’ Durham is quoted:
“I just did it because I saw the opportunity,” Mr. Durham said. He noticed a window at the museum that he thought would be easy to smash. “I didn’t have a buyer before I did it,” he said. “I just thought I can either sell them, or if I have a problem I can negotiate with the paintings.”
As Weitzel points out: “Unless it’s a crime of passion, usually the motive is to make money,” she said. “It’s as simple as that. People don’t steal it because they want to hang it on the wall. That kind of theft for pride or status, I haven’t seen that. It’s usually for money. Or, for safekeeping, in the event that it may be necessary.” And the hard truth of the difficulty in seeing a profit off of a theft means those stolen works stay hidden with a very low return on the market value of the work according to Brand.
In the early hours of Monday March 30, thieves broke the front glass window of the Singer Laren museum east of Amsterdam. The thief or thieves stole an early work by Vincent Van Gogh. In a press conference on Monday annnouncing the theft Singer Laren museum director Jan Rudolph de Lorm expressed shock and sadness:
I’m shocked and unbelievably annoyed that this has happened . . . . This beautiful and moving painting by one of our greatest artists stolen – removed from the community . . . . It is very bad for the Groninger Museum, it is very bad for the Singer, but it is terrible for us all because art exists to be seen and shared by us, the community, to enjoy to draw inspiration from and to draw comfort from, especially in these difficult times.
The Dutch Police announced that the work is only 25×57 centimeters, oil on paper, and was one of Van Gogh’s early works before he moved to southern France. The thief or thieves smashed the glass door entrance and set off the alarm, but were able to steal the small work before police arrived.
Most art thieves are awful people; but those responsible for this theft are especially vile. Art thefts seem to cluster around holidays and periods of inactivity. As the world looks increasingly to starve the Coronavirus of new hosts, and more and more people stay home, art museums are closed. And they are at increased risk from thefts.
The AP has a fascinating story on the investigation of missing artworks that may have been taken from the Venezuelan ambassador’s residence in Washington. At present only three works are confirmed missing, but the piece hints that others might be missing as well. The uneasy economic and political situation in Venezuela may make conditions ripe for officials and others to make off with valuable state works. Carlos Vecchio, an exiled Venezuelan politician told the AP:
This is likely just the tip of the iceberg . . . . If this is what they’ve managed to do with some artwork at a single diplomatic mission, you can imagine what they’ve done inside Venezuela.
To borrow a tired phrase, art and the status of culture is so often a canary in the coal mine. The AP story notes that:
A New York-based art dealer said that in 2012 he toured the vaults of the agency’s headquarters in downtown Caracas in the company of its vice president, who proposed unloading sculptures and paintings by well-known Spanish artists Baltasar Lobo and Manuel Valdes in exchange for kickbacks. The collection was commercially attractive but poorly cared for, with canvasses piling up on emergency stairwells and exposed to sunlight, said the dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from Venezuelan government officials. He showed The Associated Press photos on his cell phone of some of the works on offer. Even in better times Venezuela was ripe for some high-stakes museum heists. A painting by the French artist Henri Matisse, “Odalisque in Red Pants,” went missing around two decades ago from the Museum of Contemporary Art and was replaced by a badly-produced fake. The original was discovered in 2012 in a Miami hotel room and returned by the FBI to Venezuela’s government two years later. A Cuban man and a Mexican woman were arrested trying to sell the painting to undercover FBI agents in Miami Beach, but who was behind the theft, and exactly when it even took place, remains a mystery. Today, the museum, which boasted the largest collection of contemporary art in Latin America when it was founded in the 1970s, is a shadow of its former glory. Galleries are mostly empty, security guards nowhere to be found and the artwork exposed to the tropical heat after the air conditioning units were damaged in the frequent blackouts ravaging the capital. One of the museum’s highlights, a collection of 147 works by Picasso, is no longer on permanent display, although it did make a brief appearance at a rare show last year titled “Comrade Picasso” that stressed the Spanish artist’s communist activism. For the museum’s once loyal promoters, who were removed by Chávez in a cultural purge 18 years ago, it is a recent photo that went viral on social media of a bucket collecting water from a leaky gallery ceiling that best sums up the current state of neglect. A few blocks away, at the century-old Museum of Fine Arts, the situation is even more desperate. Only about a third of its 18 galleries are open to the public; the rest have been closed for months for renovations, although there’s no sign any are taking place.
Thieves hoping to steal this work learned that lesson the hard way last week when they attempted to steal this work of art from a baroque church (Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena) in Castelnuovo Magra in Liguria. Working from information that a theft was imminent, the Carabinieri and only a handful of the residents of the town orchestrated and elaborate switch.
They swapped the real painting out for a copy, and that’s what the thieves stole.
The thieves now have a near-worthless copy, and the painting is still safe in storage.
Daniele Montebello, the mayor of the town which has a population of 8,500, said “The original painting was replaced by a copy more than a month ago . . . We were hearing rumours that someone wanted to steal it, so the Carabinieri brought in the fake and installed security cameras.”
Parish Priest Fr. Alessandro Chintaretto, who was reportedly napping nearby when the theft took place, expressed relief the original is safe: “It is a work of rare beauty which expresses a moment of profound faith . . . ”.
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.
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.
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
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.
What was stolen from Tony Buzbee’s River Oaks mansion, ABC13 Houston (2019), https://abc13.com/5124186/ (last visited Feb 7, 2019);
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:
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.
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.