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

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.”

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

An Art Theft Anniversary

100 years ago Vincenzo Peruggia stole this painting:

The Mona Lisa

And 50 years ago Kempton Bunton stole this painting:

Goya’s The Duke of Wellington

Noah Charney discusses both in an Op-Ed for the LA Times:

These two famous art thefts, the date of the latter chosen by the colorful Bunton for the theatricality of falling on the anniversary of the former, helped to mold the public perception of art theft as a crime of oddball characters who did not really harm anyone. It is true that some of the many famous art thefts of the period preceding World War II were of this ilk, involving quirky nonviolent thieves with gentlemanly aspirations.

To read more about the Mona Lisa thefts, you can read Noah Charney’s long essay, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World’s Most Famous Painting, available from Amazon. All of the proceeds support ARCA. You can also read my short forward to the book, where I argue that perhaps we’d all be better off had the work stayed stolen.

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

Art Theft in Los Angeles

The AP is reporting that a $200,000 reward has been offered for help in recovering 12 works of art stolen on August 23rd in the San Fernando Valley in California.

Two of the works, Peasants by Marc Chagall and Alicia Alanova by Kees van Dongen are pictured here. The works were insured, though that has potential drawbacks for the owners if the works are ever recovered.

Selling these works on the open market or at an auction house any time soon will be very difficult. As I’ve speculated before, there are four potential reasons why thieves may steal well known works of art.

The first, is that a wealthy collector admires the works, and hired a thief. This is often referred to as the Dr. No situation. This seems the least likely possibility, but the one that strikes a chord with the imagination. Writers and journalists frequently cite Dr. No as being responsible for thefts, and I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been little convincing evidence that this is why people are stealing rare objects.

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 insure its safe return for a generous reward. This is what the defendants in Glasgow are charged with in the theft of da Vinci’s Madonna with the Yarnwinder.

Finally, perhaps there is a market somewhere for these works. Perhaps it may not be all that difficult to sell these kind of works. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility, as these valuable stolen works will likely be widely-publicized and photographs will be circulated.

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

More on Dr. Julius No


A warm welcome to everyone who’s clicked through from Randy Kennedy’s excellent piece which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. He managed to add some analysis and even novelty to a subject which often gets the same treatment whenever a high-profile art theft takes place.

I think he contrasts nicely the idea of an alluring art thief with the reality that “art is an exceedingly dumb thing to steal.” That certainly seems to be the conventional wisdom. But of course because “art museums are still relatively unguarded public spaces”, these thieves will continue to have the opportunity to take objects. The ultimate tragedy would be if we had to run a gauntlet of airport-like security checks to view works of art. However if these thefts continue, that may be a step certain institutions may decide to take. I particularly like the comments he elicited from Thomas McShane, the former FBI agent whose memoirs I reviewed here.

The reason myself and others like to speculate about a “Dr. No” when an extremely valuable and well-known work is stolen can be traced to the very first bond film. Dr. No was of course the unwanted son of a German missionary and a Chinese girl, and a member of the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion (SPECTRE). The film makers, in a throw away moment, capitalized on the theft in 1961 of of this work by Goya, Portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Bond does a double-take when he reaches the island home of Dr. Julius No. He sees the painting and remarks “So that’s where that went”.

Hugh McLeave’s Rogues in the Gallery details the perhaps more bizarre reality. The real thief may have been a man named Kempton Bunton. He was a disabled British pensioner who confessed to committing the crime. Bunton was a retired bus driver. In 1961, Charles Wrightsman purchased the painting for £140,000. He wanted to take the work to the United States, but of course the UK’s limited export restriction applied, and money was raised to purchase the work and it was displayed at the National Gallery. At this time a great deal of press attention was paid to the work, and Bunton, upset at the amount of money he had to pay for his TV license, may have decided to break into the museum early in the morning and steal the work.

After chatting up the security guards, Bunton allegedly learned the electronic security system would be turned off early in the morning. He used tape and paper to insure the door and a window in the toilet would be unlocked, and made his way around back early in the morning and took the painting. He later said “I raced back to the lodgings. Taking the picture from behind the wardrobe, I stood it on the bed with the frame leaning against the wall and looked at it in triumph. Wellington returned my stare with cold contempt and I swear I saw his lips move, with the imaginary voice that said: ‘thou low-born wretch, I’ll break thee for this.’ And somehow I believed he would.”

Bunton seemed to be after some notoriety and fame. Letters were soon sent to newspapers, one asked for donations to charity to allow the poor to pay for TV licenses.

In 1965, four years after the theft, Burton reportedly returned the painting via a left luggage office at the Birmingham New Street Station. Soon after he went to the police and confessed to the crime. The police initially rejected him as a suspect, as they didn’t think a pudgy 61 year-old disabled man could have committed the crime. However charges were soon filed and the jury only convicted Bunton of the theft of the frame, which was not returned. Judge Aarvold explained to the jury that if they thought he meant to return the painting if a ransom bid failed, they must acquit him. If they felt he would keep it until he got the money, they would have to convict. The jury found Bunton not guilty of stealing the painting, but guilty of stealing the gilt frame, which was never returned. Bunton served only three months in prison.

The law was changed soon after as a direct result of this light sentence. A provision in the Theft Act 1968, sec. 11 makes it a crime to remove without authority any object displayed or kept for display to the public in a building to which the public have access. It does not require an intention to permanently deprive.

As for Bunton, there are some indications that he may have perhaps been innocent. In 1996 the National Gallery released an unsolicited and simple statement that he may have been innocent. What actually happened is still subject to some speculation.

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

Major Theft in Zurich (UPDATE)


Police in Zurich have announced a major theft from an art museum in Zurich. Works by Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh were taken from the Emil Buehrle art foundation. Details are still sketchy, I’ll update more this afternoon when we learn more. This theft follows of course from the theft last week of two works by Picasso from another museum in Switzerland.

Why would someone steal such widely-known works? As I see it, there are four potential answers to this question.

The first, is that a wealthy collector admires the piece, and hired a thief to take it for him. I’ll 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 little convincing evidence that this is why people are stealing rare objects.

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 insure its safe return for a generous reward.

Finally, perhaps there is a market somewhere for these works. Perhaps it may not be all that difficult to sell these kind of works. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility, but also the least likely, as these works will likely be widely-publicized and photographs will be circulated as more details emerge.

UPDATE:

Swiss police have held a press conference and released more details on yesterday’s massive theft in Zurich. Three men entered the Buhrle foundation 30 minutes before closing yesterday, and while one man forced museum workers to the floor, the two other men collected four paintings:

Cezanne’s Boy in the Red Waistcoat

https://i1.wp.com/www.buehrle.ch/pics/07_0003_x.jpg?w=840

Monet’s Poppy Field at Vetheuil
Zurich art theft:

Degas’ Ludovic Lepic and his Daughters

https://i1.wp.com/www.buehrle.ch/pics/13_0004_x.jpg?w=840

and Van Gogh’s Blooming Chestnut Branches

https://i2.wp.com/www.buehrle.ch/pics/21_0003_x.jpg?w=840

The estimated monetary value of these stolen works is about $164 million USD, which would put it near the top of works stolen in recent decades; I’ll leave to art historians the task of evaluating the cultural value of these works which may be far larger.

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