More on the Nice Thefts

Today Molly Moore of the Washington Post has more details on Sunday’s theft of four works in Nice. Traditionally most French museums are free on the first Sunday of the month, and such was the case on Sunday. The thieves ordered the guards to lie down on the floor at gunpoint. They stuffed the 4 works by Monet, Sisley, and Bruegel in their bags and left–two on a motorcycle and three in a car. It seems they were after a fifth work but left it behind because they couldn’t fit it in their bag. The works by Monet and Sisley were on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. One of the works taken is pictured above, Jan Bruegel the Elder’s Allegory of the Earth

Patricia Grimaud, the deputy curator said “Who could expect to be held up in broad daylight like that?… They were really bold and quick, it took them only 10 minutes. I can’t find the right words to describe what they did.”

Moore rightly points out that “it has become virtually impossible to sell the better-known stolen pieces on the public art market.” But why steal the works if there is no market? Speculation abounds that there must be some kind of market motivating these thefts. It could be a real-life Dr. No, organized criminals could be using the works as collateral, they may be hoping to ransom the works back, or the thieves may not have known how difficult the works are to sell.

As I said yesterday, the Monet and Sisley paintings had been stolen in 1999 and quickly recovered. The NY Times reports the Sisley may have been stolen in 1978 as well. Perhaps the Musee des beaux artes in Nice has some security problems?

Unfortunately the criminal and civil law does a poor job of preventing art theft. The risk of jail time is much lower than for other crimes like kidnapping or other armed robberies. The cost/benefit calculus favors art thieves in many cases as works by important artists will remain extremely valuable and there is no special legal status for important artworks. The law looks on them just like any other commodity.

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Theft of 4 Works in Nice

On Sunday five men stole four important works from the Cheret Museum of Fine Arts in Nice. The works are:

  1. Claude Monet, Cliffs at Dieppe (1897)
  2. Alfred Sisley, Lane lined with poplars near Moret (1890)
  3. Jan Breugel, Allegory of Water (17th Century)
  4. Jan Breugel, Allegory of Earth (17th Century)

The first two works were stolen and quickly recovered in 1998. The then curator was implicated in the theft. This image is from the 1998 BBC story outlining the theft and recovery. Entry to this museum was free on the Sunday, and the men threatened the museum staff before leaving in a motorcycle and a car. As one would expect, the Police in Nice are speculating that the works have been stolen to order as the high profile of these works and the artists would make a good-faith sale near impossible.

(correction: It’s Claude Monet, not Money as I typed incorrectly earlier today.)

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Dividing a Nazi Art Dealer’s Collection

Catherine Hickley wrote a very interesting article for Bloomberg on the efforts by France, Germany and Switzerland to divide Bruno Lohse’s art collection. Here is an excerpt:

Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering to acquire looted art in occupied France, dispersed his private collection of Dutch 17th-century masterpieces and expressionist paintings among friends and relatives in his will, the lawyer handling his estate said.

Lohse died on March 19, aged 95, and has since become the focus of a three-nation investigation into a looted Camille Pissarro painting discovered in a Swiss bank safe that was seized by Zurich prosecutors on May 15. The painting’s prewar owners said the Gestapo stole it from their Vienna apartment in 1938. Lohse controlled the Liechtenstein trust that rented the safe.

“Paintings have been willed to relatives and friends in individual bequests,” Willy Hermann Burger, the executor of Lohse’s will, said in an interview at his home in Munich. Burger, who declined to name the beneficiaries or disclose details on individual artworks, said he’s sure none of the paintings in Lohse’s private collection are looted.

Lohse became Paris-based deputy director of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazis’ specialist art-looting unit, in 1942, according to the interrogation report compiled by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services’ Art Looting Investigation Unit, which questioned him in Austria from June 15 to Aug. 15, 1945.

The E.R.R. plundered about 22,000 items in France alone, according to the O.S.S. reports. The Jewish Claims Conference estimates that the Nazis looted about 650,000 artworks in total.

“There is a lot of art still missing and we believe that a significant proportion remains in private collections, especially in Germany and Austria,” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a not-for-profit organization based in London that helps families recover plundered property.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Lohse became an art dealer in the 1950’s, and thus most of his private collection is probably legitimate. However, the Pisarro found in the Swiss bank vault, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps is probably looted, at least according to the Art Loss Register. This all underscores the importance of establishing and checking provenance for works of art when they are sold or donated. If the various European prosecutors are not as aggressive as their American counterparts have been, a lengthy and complex legal dispute between the successor and the descendants of the original1938 owner will likely ensue.

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Ramses II for sale

French police arrested a man attempting to sell pieces of hair from Pharoah Ramses the II on the internet. He was asking for 2,000 Euros for hair samples. The main claimed his father worked on restoring the body between 1976-77. Ramses II was born around 1304 BC. The unfortunate story highlights the fact that human remains are being bought and sold, and are an unfortunate component of the illicit market in cultural property. It will be interesting to see exactly how French authorities prosecute this man. The mummy most likely belongs to Egypt. Even if the man had nothing to do with the actual removal, it is likely he will be charged with receiving stolen property.

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