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

Flea market Renoir really was a steal

Paysage Bords de Seine, Renoir

Every time I hear the story of a flea market sale where some lucky buyer with a good eye purchased a work by a well-known artist, I always think that chances are good that work was stolen at some point. How does a Renoir make it to a flea market, really. And that’s the story of this Renoir purchased at a flea market in West Virginia for $7. It was scheduled for auction this week, but now it looks likely to have been stolen some time before 1951 from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The painting has not it seems been reported to art loss databases. The Washington Post notes that its own reporters conducted research and found the painting was missing from the Baltimore Museum of Art:

Museum officials then searched their archives, where they found paperwork showing that the Impressionist work, “Paysage Bords de Seine,” or “Landscape on the Banks of the Seine,” was pilfered from their building nearly 61 years ago. The museum had the painting on loan from one of its famous benefactors, Saidie A. May, a Baltimore native who died in May 1951. Museum records show that the Renoir was stolen on Nov. 17, 1951, just as May’s art collection was being bequeathed to the museum for permanent ownership. The revelations put on hold Saturday’s much-ballyhooed auction of the Renoir at the Potomack Company in Alexandria. Elizabeth Wainstein, Potomack’s president, said the Virginia woman who made the flea market find was disappointed. But she immediately agreed to halt the sale until the FBI determines the rightful ownership of the painting, which the auction house estimated is worth $75,000 to $100,000. It will remain at the auction house until then, Wainstein said.

The case reveals the importance of reporting a theft, even decades into the future. There is no word on whether the doll and plastic cow the anonymous flea market art buyer also bought with the this $7 painting are stolen as well. But the buyer should get credit for reportedly cooperating fully with the FBI.

  1. Ian Shapira, Flea market Renoir was allegedly stolen from Baltimore Museum of Art, auction canceled, The Washington Post, September 27, 2012.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

$1.7 Million Reward Offered for Art Recovery

An oil Painting titled "Composition (A) En Rouge Et Blanc" by Piet Mondrian.
Composition en rouge et blanc
Piet Mondrian, one of the stolen works

Jeffrey Gundlach is apparently one of “the world’s top bond gurus”. Unfortunately his financial expertise does not seemed to have carried over to safeguarding his stuff. Gundlach returned from a trip to his home in Santa Monica on Sep. 14 to discover that his art collection, some of his rare wine, and his 2010 porsche. There are scant details of the theft, but the collection of stolen art is considerable, with the stolen works from Mondrian, Franz Kline, Jasper Johns, and others.

Today at a brief press conference Gundlach announced he would be offering a reward of $1 million for this Mondrian, and $700,000 for the return of the other paintings. The details of the theft can only be speculated at, but some reports indicate the thieves drove away with the paintings in Gundlach’s very own porsche.

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

Renoir added to FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes List

Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair
Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow
with Flowers in Her Hair

On September 8, 2011 this work by Renoir was stolen by an armed man wearing a ski mask. The owner of the painting was upstairs and discovered the thief downstairs. Today the FBI’s art crime team has added it to their list of ten art crimes list, giving the theft and the work considerable exposure which substantially increases the likelihood of a recovery. The FBI notes that since the creation of the list in 2005 six paintings and one sculpture have been recovered. A reward of $50,000 is offered for information leading to a return. Information can be submitted online at fbi.gov.

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

Student Comment on the Law of Art Theft

Amber Slattery, a J.D. Candidate at Villanova school of Law has a comment titled “TO CATCH AN ART THIEF: USING INTERNATIONAL AND DOMESTIC LAWS TO PAINT FRAUDULENT ART DEALERS INTO A CORNER” which appears in 19 Villanova Sports & Ent. L. J. 827 (2012). From the introduction:

Legal problems pertaining to the art world typically address ownership and repatriation of stolen cultural works to their original countries. Examples of Nazi-looted art spring up every year, creating uncomfortable demands between aggrieved former owners and current good-faith purchasers. Famous auction houses sell antiquities for which provenance cannot be established. Implicit in many legal issues pertaining to art is the fact that at some point, a crime took place. Fraud, theft, and trafficking are all crimes that begin with an act of greed and end with a piece of art or cultural property relegated to the status of contraband. . . This Comment explains the occurrence of high profile art fraud as it fits into the larger picture of art theft crimes. Section I introduces art fraud and the Wildenstein affair. Section II provides a comprehensive background on art theft. Section III addresses the underlying cultural reasons for nations’ differing policies and laws on cultural property. Section IV provides a survey of international laws and domestic laws from around the world that address art crimes. Section V addresses the effectiveness of American fraud law when applied to art crimes and discusses specific examples of recent art crimes. Finally, section VI addresses the viability of an ignorance defense to fraud charges in France and other civil law countries, how the defense would affect outcomes in the U.S., and how to prevent fraud of this nature from occurring again.

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

Arrests in the Fitzwilliam Theft

There are reports that between two and six individuals have been arrested in connection with the theft of 18 Chinese objects from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The theft was the subject of BBC’s Crimewatch Tuesday:

The stolen pieces had been given as gifts or bequests to the museum, with some experts estimating the artifacts to be worth approximately £18 million (about $28.7 million Cdn). None of the artifacts has been recovered. Police sought help from the public through a segment on the BBC-TV program Crimewatch on Tuesday evening. The show aired closed-circuit camera footage of four suspects sought in conjunction with the robbery.

As Dick Ellis explained in an interview last week, these thieves probably saw the booming trade in Chinese artworks, and may not have understood how difficult an eventual sale would be. Much in the same way similar objects were stolen from the Durham museum.

17th Century jade "imaginary beast" stolen from Fitzwilliam MuseumNoah Charney speculated last week that the stolen objects will be “smuggled [to China] . . . for in China the general rules about not purchasing art without performing Due Diligence and checking stolen art databases do not apply. Provenance is far less of an issue, sometimes for cultural reasons, but also for practical ones–Internet black-outs mean that many in China could not check stolen art databases, even if they were inclined to do so.” I’m not sure that will be the case.

The Chinese have—on paper at least—the most regulated art market in the world, with a tiered series of regulation. It is one of the only sets of regulations which puts direct regulation in the art market, at the point of sale. Are there problems and corruption? Perhaps. But what art market—whether its in Rome, Paris, London, or New York is not corrupt?

In 2002, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics. The 2002 Law legalizes private transactions involving cultural relics in five circumstances, (1) legal inheritance or gift; (2) purchase from cultural relics shops; (3) purchase from cultural relics auction enterprises; (4) exchanges or transfers between individual citizens; and (5) other methods authorized by the central government. Many of these transactions take place at officially sanctioned cultural relics shops and auction enterprises; and the 2002 Law prohibits a cultural relic shop from running an auction and vice versa.

Under Article 58, the government may buy any cultural relic submitted to a mandatory inspection before sale pursuant to Article 56. During this mandatory inspection, under Article 56, the government is given a kind of right of first refusal, with the purchase price determined by the government representative. Pursuant to article 57, in the event of a sale to a private individual, a report is produced, effectively tracking the buyers and sellers of cultural objects. This new regulatory framework seems a very aggressive strategy, and one that, if implemented effectively, could positively impact the illicit trade in China. However, implementing this strategy may be difficult and subject to corruption.  And yet by recording who buys what, it may be possible not only to track the chain of title of specific cultural objects, but also to evaluate whether individuals are routinely buying and selling stolen, looted, or suspicious objects. What other nation does this routinely? Perhaps the Italian Carabinieri, but that may be it.

Many in the West have an immediate reaction to all things China. And I think that quote above does not really convey the reality of the Chinese art market. Prof. Paul Bator remarked in 1983 that China was the great under-researched area of the world when it comes to sources of heritage theft (he called it art theft). Despite s few reports, that is still the case. We can blame the Chinese for other problems perhaps, but the Chinese art market does not I think bear the collective guilt for the Fitzwilliam theft. Rather it seems to be a more homegrown set of thieves from East London.

  1. He Shuzhong, Protection of China’s Cultural Heritage, 5 J. Art, Antiquity & L., 19 (2000).
  2. J. David Murphy, Plunder and preservation : cultural property law and practice in the People’s Republic of China, (1995), http://www.bcin.ca/Interface/openbcin.cgi?submit=submit&Chinkey=204154 (last visited May 2, 2012).
  3. Andrew Jacobs, China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums, The New York Times, December 17, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/17/world/asia/17china.html?_r=2&hp (last visited Dec 17, 2009).
  4. Peter Foster, China to study British Museum for looted artefacts, Telegraph.co.uk, October 19, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/6374959/China-to-study-British-Museum-for-looted-artefacts.html (last visited Oct 20, 2009).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com