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

Picasso Vandalism at the Menil in Houston

The vandal used a stencil to spray a bull and the Spanish word Conquista (conquer) in gold paint on Pablo Picasso's painting Woman in a Red Armchair.

 A moron has decided to vandalize a Picasso work at the Menil in Houston. This is a few blocks from our house—but we are away in Amelia at the ARCA summer program finishing up my teaching and preparing for the annual conference this weekend. If we were home the spaniels and I would be scouring Houston looking for this dimwit. From the chronicle:

Police are searching for a suit-jacketed suspect who spray-painted graffiti over a Picasso painting at Houston's Menil Collection art museum last week.

Menil communications director Vance Muse, reached in Germany Monday, said the painting was rushed down the hall, with the paint barely dry, to the museum’s renowned conservation lab, where chief conservator Brad Epley quickly began its repair. The vandal, who fled the building and has not been identified, stenciled an image of a bullfighter killing a bull and the word “Conquista” on the painting.

 The vandal used a stencil and spraypaint to damage Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair. The work may have been rushed down to the conservation lab, yet the museum security was nowhere to be seen. One of the great charms of the Menil is you can wander in and have the place to yourself on a hot afternoon, but perhaps security needs to pay a little closer attention. 

  1. Molly Glentzer, Picasso vandal hits Menil, Houston Chronicle, http://www.chron.com/entertainment/article/Picasso-vandal-hits-Menil-3642537.php#src=fb (last visited Jun 20, 2012).

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

Art and Antiquities Crime Up 30% in Greece

“We have now come back, hiring just security personnel to man museums and archaeological sites. Well, doesn’t that prove our genuine conviction to safeguarding our cultural heritage?” 


So says Lina Mendoni, secretary general of the Greek Culture Ministry in response to questions that the Greeks aren’t paying enough to safeguard its sites. 


As protests continue to unfold in Greece, one report looks back at the theft of art from the Greek National Gallery in Athens. Anthee Carassava, reporting from Athens for the L.A. Times can’t help but to add a few glamorizing details to the theft. One of the thieves is a “virtuoso lock picker”. The thieves manipulated the security system and eluded the one guard on duty and stole works by Picasso (pictured here), Mondrian, and a sketch by Guglielmo Caccia. I’m always skeptical of reporting in one nation’s papers pointing fingers at the ineptness of another nation’s efforts to protect its heritage. This problem plagues loads of international reporting in places like Italy and also Greece. And even if we take the United States or United Kingdom, theft and looting takes place, and there aren’t enough security guards to police remote sites and small institutions, which results in the theft of objects. Market safeguards are unreliable, and the law enforcement framework all over the world is still developing. So when funding pressures and unrest take hold, there can be dire consequences for cultural security.

The theme of the report here ties the theft in this case to the wider theme of Greek austerity, and unrest.

Greece’s economic crisis has left the Culture Ministry desperately short of cash, resulting in a near-shutdown of scores of museums, dwindling archaeological work in various parts of the country and, in some cases, severe cutbacks in security. At the National Gallery, the curator acknowledged that although the safety of its collection “is not in peril,” budget cuts have scaled back security personnel by about 50% since 2010, leaving the country’s biggest storehouse of fine art with just 19 of the 37 guards it employed before the fiscal crisis.

. . .

Greece has never been a generous investor in culture. Even in the 1990s heyday of spendthrift policies, Athens allocated just 0.7% of the national budget for the promotion and preservation of Greece’s cultural inheritance. Now nearly bankrupt, the state has halved that figure to 0.35%, allotting 42% of that — about $173 million — to the operation and security of museums, monuments, monasteries and archaeological sites, according to the 2012 budget. Government officials are emphatic, however, that the financial crisis is not taking a toll on the safety of Greece’s fine art and antiquities.

. . .

About 1,900 government-paid guards protect more than 15,000 museums, monuments and archaeological sites across the country. Of these, 1,350 are full-time staff members; the rest are either contract employees hired during the peak tourist season or civil servants relocated from state corporations that the government shut down last year in a bid to slash public spending. “What am I supposed to do with a 63-year-old mechanic or bus driver who is clueless about antiquity and is just interested in clocking time until retirement?” asked Giorgos Dimakakos, the head guard at the Acropolis, Greece’s landmark monument. In recent months, Culture Ministry guards have heightened demands for permanent employment and an exemption from further austerity cuts, saying the government’s Band-Aid solutions to personnel shortages pose grave security and liability risks. With poverty levels rising and more than 100,000 businesses shuttered or close to bankruptcy, art and antiquities thefts are up by at least 30% in the last year, said Kouzilos of the special police unit. It’s hardly a surprise, then, to see a dramatic increase in small-time hoods and first-time crooks trying to join the ranks of seasoned art thieves.

I’d be interested in hearing how this security compares with even the ‘model’ in the rest of Europe or North America. I also wonder if it might be time to prepare a ‘red list’ of objects from Greece that the art market should report and flag.

  1. Anthee Carassava, Art heist robs Greece of a sense of security – latimes.com, L.A. Times, February 11, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-greece-antiquities-20120212,0,3742515.story (last visited Feb 15, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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

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

$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.

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