Connecting Art and Drug Crime

LS Lowry’s The Viaduct, stolen in 2007

We can make at least one more connection between the drug trade and art theft. A number of stolen artworks have been recovered near Manchester. The investigation was primarily aimed at the sale of illegal narcotics, the paintings were ancillary to that investigation. The theft of the paintings in 2007 was a troubling example of a violent art theft:

A man posing as a postman knocked on the Aird family’s door in Cheadle Hulme. When Louise Aird, who was carrying the couple’s two-year-old daughter Sabrina in her arms, opened the door, she was confronted by Miller brandishing a 10-inch knife. Three other men followed him into the house. “They tied me up with a cable and had a knife in my back,” Aird, 46, said. “They said they would slit my throat. Then they said they would kill the baby if we moved, that’s what they kept saying. They took everything out of the bottom half of the house.”

The four men stole 14 pieces of art. In 2009 one of the thieves was jailed, while three remain at large. The two arrests in connection with this drug raid do not appear to have a connection to the theft itself. Rather the arrested men acquired the paintings through the black market. Though these works are well known and could not have been sold on the open market, these paintings do have value on the black market as leverage. The connections between other criminal activity and art theft are often discussed, but seldom shown in such sharp contrast as we see in this case. Interesting that the defendants thought the police were investigating them for the art, when it was a drug investigation instead that led to the recovery.
  1. Victim of LS Lowry paintings robbery relieved after thieves jailed, the Guardian, March 22, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/mar/22/ls-lowry-paintings-robbery (last visited Mar 22, 2012).
  2. LS Lowry Masterpieces Found In Anti-Drugs Raid In Liverpool, The Huffington Post,  http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/03/21/ls-lowry-masterpieces-worth-17m-found-liverpool-anti-drugs-raid_n_1370727.html (last visited Mar 22, 2012).
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Footnotes

“Le Marché” 

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Update on the Athens Theft

This Picasso was given to Greece in 1949, because the Greeks resisted the Nazis
The Ink Drawing by Caccia 

No recovery or arrests yet, but there has been a little new information to shed light on the recent theft from the Athens’ National Gallery. Police have said that one man entered the National Gallery through a small balcony door, after he had deliberately and repeatedly set off alarms the night before, which led to a guard disabling one of the alarms. There has been speculation that Greek austerity and budget cuts contributed to the theft, which seems overblown and a bit unfair to the Greeks. Whenever a security breach or theft takes place, the museum looks bad. And whether budget cuts and poorly paid security played a role remains to be seen.

Greek authorities have said that the theft was probably done to benefit a private collector. That seems at this point to be speculation, and is an attractive, if unlikely motive for the theft. There just aren’t that many real-life versions of Dr. Julius No.

But there is a good idea about what uses these stolen works may be put to:

A 20th Century landscape by Piet Mondrian

 Dick Ellis, director of Art Management Group in England, who set up the art theft division for Scotland Yard more than 20 years ago, said there’s a good chance they will be recovered and, if not, used as collateral to fund other criminal enterprises. “Government indemnity doesn’t cover theft. They [thieves] are looking for a ransom route that is not going to be forthcoming. We’ll have to see the caliber of the criminal,” he told SETimes. “It’s obviously an important Picasso, and it adds to its prominence that it was given by the artist himself,” said Ellis, who recovered in Serbia two Picassos stolen from a Swiss museum five years ago. 

When a theft like this takes place, security is front and center, and the Greeks are noting that security was robust at the museum:

Niki Katsantonis, a spokeswoman for the culture ministry, told SETimes that “The National Gallery, as well as all the other museums and archaeological sites, are equipped with modern security systems,” and pointed out that there have been thefts at many other museums around the world. She said the gallery will build a 46.5m-euro extension this year with EU funds, an addition that “won’t just improve the grounds, but it will fortify them as well”. Police spokesman Athanassios Kokkalakis said, “These were no amateurs. Their moves and operation together were very well calculated. With the publicity this heist has received, it’s unlikely these works will ever make their way into the black market.” 

 Robert Wittman noted, “You can’t judge art only on the dollar value, but what it means to civilisation. Your biggest agony is if it is destroyed or damaged. . . . About 99.99% of the time they are not stolen to order, but on the ability of the thieves to go in and get them. Most of the time they will take what’s easy to get and carry. . . . If they get caught in an armed robbery or something else, they can use it to negotiate.”

  1. Andy Dabilis, Greek investigators search for missing masterpiece, January 13, 2012, http://setimes.com/cocoon/setimes/xhtml/en_GB/features/setimes/features/2012/01/13/feature-03 (last visited Jan 18, 2012).
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Stolen Magritte Returned

Olympia by Rene Magritte, has been returned

In 2009 two armed thieves stormed the former home of Rene Magritte outside of Brussels. They held the three curators and two tourists at gunpoint while they stole the work.  Given the events yesterday at the Athens Museum, it is perhaps reminding ourselves why art thieves decide to steal. At the time I ran through some possible motives of stealing a work of art:

The first, is that a collector admires the piece, and hired a thief to take it for him. We can call this the Dr. No situation. This seems the least likely possibility, but the one that strikes a chord with the imagination. Writers in this subject frequently cite the Dr. No as being responsible for thefts, and I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been no convincing evidence that thsi is why people are stealing rare objects. Another similar possibility  . . .  is that an unscrupulous dealer may have a similar piece for sale, and if he can establish some excitement around these kinds of pieces, the price for his similar work may go up. 

Second, the thief may not have known that the object was so rare as to make its subsequent sale difficult.

Third, the thief may simply be trying to kidnap the object. They could then [ensure] its safe return for a generous reward, or negotiate its return.

Finally, perhaps the market is doing such a poor job of regulating what is and is not legitimate, that it may not be all that difficult to sell this piece after all. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility, but also not very likely.

We can also add a fifth possibility, that organized criminals use these works as collateral in a kind of shadow version of the stock market.

In this case it seems the second possibility was exactly right, as now the work has been returned because the thieves were unable to find a buyer. In a report the Curator of the Magritte museum, Andre Garitte said the painting was returned after the thieves “understood they wouldn’t be able to sell it because it was too well-known,” he said. “It became an embarassment and they preferred to get rid of it. Luckily they didn’t destroy it.”

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Art Theft from the Athens National Gallery

This Picasso was given to Greece in 1949, because the Greeks resisted the Nazis
The Ink Drawing by Caccia 

A 20th Century landscape by Piet Mondrian

Shortly before 5 am this morning in Athens thieves broke into the back of the gallery, forced open a balcony door and stole a painting by Picasso, and Mondirian painting, and a sketch by Guglielmo Caccia. The works were stripped from their frames, and might have been damaged. The museum guard heard an alarm, and saw a person running from the building. The thief dropped a painting, a landscape by Mondrian as he escaped. The thieves had distracted the guards all night by perhaps triggering alarms from outside the building, which prompted the guards to disable at least one of the alarms. Police say the theft took only seven minutes.

  1. Picasso stolen from Greek gallery, BBC, January 9, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16470459 (last visited Jan 9, 2012).
  2. Associated Press, Art thieves rob Picasso from Athens museum, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57355197/art-thieves-rob-picasso-from-athens-museum/ (last visited Jan 9, 2012).
  3. Picasso and Mondrian paintings stolen from Greece’s biggest state art museum, The Telegraph, January 9, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9002976/Picasso-and-Mondrian-paintings-stolen-from-Greeces-biggest-state-art-museum.html (last visited Jan 9, 2012).
  4. Greek national gallery robbed of Picasso, Mondrian, CBC, http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/story/2012/01/09/greece-art-theft-picasso-mondrian.html (last visited Jan 9, 2012).
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France Seizes Painting Stolen in 1818

Christ Carrying the Cross, Nicolas Tournier

The owner of Weiss Gallery in London is in “complete shock” after officials from the French ministry of culture have refused to allow The Carrying of the Cross, by Nicolas Tournier to be taken from France back to England. The gallery purchased the painting at a Maastricht art fair last year for 400,000 Euros. The gallery took it to a small old master art fair in Paris called Paris Tableau, but France has now detained the work of art.

Mark Weiss, the owner of the gallery stated “I’ve been in communication with the director of the Toulouse museum since I acquired the painting in 2010, and at no stage has he ever stated that the picture was a stolen painting.” The work originally hung in a chapel in Toulouse, but during the French Revolution the work was confiscated and moved to a museum. It was then apparently stolen from a museum in 1818. It would be interesting to know more about what those conversations were like between Weiss and the Toulouse museum.

France has argued this is the rediscovery of a long-lost work, yet it was stolen nearly two centuries ago. Have there been persistent claims for its return? I’m not sure. It is difficult to envision the French have the legal right to seize the painting so long after its theft. They do have the de facto power perhaps to temporarily detain the work, and make life very difficult for the gallery owner. Any experts in the area of French law care to offer any opinions? The newspaper accounts have merely focused on the seizure, without diving into the merits.

  1. AFP: British gallery rejects France’s claim to painting, (2011) (last visited Nov 9, 2011).
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Art Cops: Overworked and Under-resourced

Over the weekend in the Baltimore Sun Tricia Bishop reports on the current state of heritage policing in the United States:

America is the largest consumer of artwork in the world, with a 40 percent share of the $200 billion global industry. It’s also the scene of nearly half of the illegal art trade estimated to be worth another $7 billion worldwide. 

Yet other countries pay far more attention to art fraud. Italy has several hundred detectives on its Carabinieri Art Squad, and Greece, France, Germany and Belgium all have national units working the detail. 

In contrast, the FBI’s Art Crime Team, co-founded by a Baltimore native whose father ran an antiques shop on Howard Street, is made up of one archaeologist and 13 agents, who work the beat on the side. And the Los Angeles Police Department’s Art Theft Detail consists of just one investigator, a man who is delaying retirement because he’s afraid the division will die if he leaves without a trained successor.

The piece looks at three of the main groups tasked with art crimes in the United States: The Art Crime Team, the Archival Recovery Team, and Don Hrycyk at the LAPD. As I said in the piece, these folks have an essential job, and given the fact these crimes are still relegated to the status of non-violent property crimes in many cases, they don’t rise to the level of illegal narcotics or terrorism or other priorities law enforcement must tackle. But there is a fundamental difference between property and historical objects and art, and more attention should be paid to them. America as a country might be thinking too much about owning and buying these objects, and not enough about acting as stewards.

  1. Tricia Bishop, Art investigators: Saving the country’s cultural heritage, one recovered work at a time, Baltimore Sun, October 23, 2011, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-history-thieves-20111007,0,443863,full.story (last visited Oct 26, 2011).
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$150 Million worth of art in the trash?

Stolen to order?
Nature Mort au Chandelier, Fernand Léger, 1922

Last week it was reported that three individuals were arrested in connection with the theft of five works from the Musée d’art Moderne in Paris. The thefts took place in 2010 and there were reports that the museums alarms had been malfunctioning for months. Well the thieves may have had a very easy time stealing the art. There are reports that the five stolen works were destroyed, and that one of the works was stolen to order:

Detectives said that while they remained sceptical about his account, they could not “totally rule out” this catastrophic scenario. The destruction of such landmark masterpieces would be a major blow to international art heritage. The first to be arrested was a Serb known only as Vrejan T, 43, nicknamed “Spiderman” and who was detained days after last year’s heist over a separate art theft from a chic Paris apartment. Under questioning, the suspect reportedly recounted how he loosened screws in a window at the Art Deco Palais de Tokyo housing the museum, returned a few nights later to remove the frame and sliced through a padlock on an iron grille. He had initially gone there only to steal a Léger work to order, he said, but once inside, was “surprised” when the burglary alarm failed to sound. Being a “veritable art lover,” the Serb told police he then wandered around for another hour, eluding 30 closed circuit cameras to cherry pick four other masterpieces. “He found the Modigliani the most beautiful of all,” a judicial source told the JDD. Vrejan T reportedly told investigators he had stolen the Léger for Jean-Michel C, 56, an antiques dealer with a shop called Antiquités Bastille. He was arrested in May for selling other stolen art works.

As a wise Museum Security Director once said: ‘shit happens’. Lets hope this is the statement of a desperate defendant, and the paintings are still safe. This underscores the point that tracking down art thieves is a delicate proposition. They have a very big piece of collateral, in this case five important works of art. If you prosecute the thief too harshly, you run the risk of destroying what you were after. Of course the best way to prevent this destruction would have been better basic attention to security.

  1. Henry Samuel, £100m masterpieces stolen from French museum “crushed by rubbish truck,” The Telegraph, October 9, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/8816634/100m-masterpieces-stolen-from-French-museum-crushed-by-rubbish-truck.html (last visited Oct 10, 2011). 
The other stolen works:
La Pastorale, Henri Matisse, 1906
L’Olivier pres de l’Estaque, Georges Braque, 1906
The Pigeon with Peas, Pablo Picasso, 1911-12
La femme a l’eventail, Amadeo Modigliani

   

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Three arrested in connection with thefts from Musee d’Art Moderne

In May 2010 five works were stolen from the Musee d’Art Moderne near the Eiffel tower. Now three individuals are being detained in connection with the thefts, though the works are still missing. From AFP:

The Pigeon with Peas, Pablo Picasso, 1911-12

The three, a woman suspected of taking part in the theft and two people suspected of handling stolen goods, were arrested and charged over the robbery of the five paintings, by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Ferdinand Leger and Amedeo Modigliani, and placed in custody on September 16, the official said. A lone burglar sheared off a gate padlock and broke a window to get into the city-run Musee d’Art Moderne in the brazen operation during the night of May 19 last year. The paintings were found to be missing just as the museum, a major tourist attraction near the Eiffel Tower, was about to open. Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe later said one of the museum’s alarms had been “partly malfunctioning” since the end of March, and that it was still awaiting repair when the thieves struck.

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Footnotes

File:Apamea 02.jpg
The Cardo Maximus in Apamea in Syria

On a two-week trip to Paris, Mr. Lacoursière found himself loitering in the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre, which were in so many ways the exact opposite of his beat at home where he toured the dirtiest corners of the human psyche. He returned to Montreal, vowing to find a way to incorporate his long-time love of art with his police work. So he enrolled in an art history night course at a local university.

She has a fellowship in the department of art and archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and is head of the department of antiquities in the breakaway territory of Somaliland, in the north-west region of Somalia. She is the only archaeologist working in the region.

It’s a remarkable journey for a girl who fled Mogadishu in 1991, aged 14, as Somalia descended into the chaos of civil war. Driving her forward is the urge to uncover and preserve a cultural heritage that has been systematically looted, both in colonial times and more recently by warlords trading national heritage for guns.

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