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

The Getty Returns a Work to Goudstikker Heir Marei von Saher

The Getty has voluntarily agreed to return a work it purchased—in good faith they claim—in 1972. According to  Mike Boehm’s report in the L.A. Times, the Getty stands as the first North American Museum to voluntarily return a work to the Heir of Jacques Goudstikker. The work, Landscape With Cottage and Figures, by Mieter Molijn, dates to the 1640s. It is unclear how the disputed painting came to light, but the return of this work stands in contrast to the ongoing dispute between von Saher and the Norton Simon:

The Norton Simon Museum’s “Adam and Eve” also were among the Goudstikker-owned works the Allies repatriated to Holland after the war. But the Dutch government subsequently sold them to an heir of Russian nobility who claimed that his family, the Stroganoffs, had a prior claim on them, having owned them before they were seized by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Goudstikker bought them at an auction in 1931, then lost them to the Nazis. Whether “Adam and Eve” had belonged to the Stroganoffs during the early 1900s is part of the dispute between Von Saher and the Norton Simon Museum. The museum’s founder and namesake bought them from the Stroganoff heir for $800,000 in 1971; the museum has had them appraised at $24 million. 

In the “Adam and Eve” case, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled in 2007 that Von Saher had filed her claim too late to meet the three-year statute of limitations for suing to recover allegedly stolen art, and that a 2002 California law suspending the statute of limitations for Holocaust-era art-restitution claims filed through the end of 2010 was unconstitutional because it intruded on the federal government’s sole prerogative to set foreign policy and war policy. 

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in 2009 that the California law was unconstitutional, although it directed the trial judge to reconsider whether Von Saher nevertheless has a legitimate claim under the regular statute of limitations. 

Von Saher has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of reinstating the voided state law. The high court indicated in October that it is considering whether to take up the case, but first it asked the U.S. solicitor general to file a brief giving the federal government’s view. Kaye, the Von Saher attorney, said the brief hasn’t been filed yet.

So the Getty has voluntarily returned the work to the dispossessed heir, and should be praised for doing the right things. Yet that decision surely was much easier given that the painting was never displayed. The Norton Simon has decided to fight to retain possession of its disputed works—which are more valuable, and have a much more complex history, touching both the Bolshevik revolution and World War II.

  1. Mike Boehm, Getty Museum: Getty Museum agrees to return painting looted by Nazis, L.A. Times, March 29, 2011, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-getty-painting-20110329,0,2892909.story (last visited Mar 29, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Netherlands Returns Iraqi Objects

The BBC reports on the transfer of ownership of 69 objects from the Netherlands to Iraq which had been illegally removed from that country after the 2003 invasion.

The objects were taken from Dutch art dealers and will likely be displayed in the Dutch National Museum for Antiquities until they can be returned to Iraq.

Ronald Plasterk, the Dutch minister for education, culture and science, said the world should “cherish and honour” Iraq’s history as the cradle of civilisation. 
“These objects lose a lot of their value if they are stolen from their site,” he said. 
Mr Plasterk said the items were surrendered by Dutch art dealers once police informed them they had been stolen.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Ratifications

In July the Netherlands accepted the 1970 UNESCO Convention and it will enter into force on the 17th of October, 2009.

Also, Italy has ratified the Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. 

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

More on the Dutch Recovery

Is stolen the same as sold?  David Charter for the Times has more details on the recovery of eight works stolen 22 years ago.  He reports that in December a middleman in Dubai tried to sell the works back to the insurance company. 

The detective, Ben Zuidema, [who was hired to investigate the theft two decades ago] said that he was contacted out of the blue by a man wanting to sell the paintings back to the insurers for €5 million (£4.5 million). Included in the offer was €1 million for Mr Zuidema to facilitate the deal.

 The good news is the works were recovered, however many were folded and badly damaged, including this work by Jan Brueghel the Younger. 

The story gets stranger with respect to a still-missing ninth work.  As the private detective Zuidema told Dutch reporters this still missing work may have been destroyed by the gallery owner Robert Noortman who died two years ago.  That is certainly a very serious accusation, and one which Noortman is no longer alive to defend against.  He is quoted by the Dutch news agency Algemeen Nederland Persbureau that “I shared my findings about him with the police in Maastricht, . . .  But in the end it did not lead to the finding of the paintings.”
At the time Noortman claimed that “Stolen is sold”.  True enough for the bottom line, though it is a pretty distasteful sentiment as these works were lost for 22 years, and have emerged very badly damaged.  

(photo credit:  Ruben Schipper/EPA)

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

8 Works Recovered 22 Years After the Theft

On Saturday Dutch prosecutors said three people had been arrested in connection with a theft which took place in 1987 from the Noortman gallery in Maastricht.  In the statement Dutch prosecutors said “The suspects were apparently trying to sell the art works to the insurance company that had paid out 2.27 million euros (£2m) after they went missing . . .  The investigation has yet to determine where the paintings have been for more than 20 years,”

 The works were by 17th Century artists David Teniers, Willem van de Velde and Jan Brueghel the Younger, as well as 19th Century painters Eva Gonzales, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Paul Desire Trouillebert.

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