Two Recovered, Two Still Missing

Two of the four works stolen from the Buhrle Collection have been recovered at a mental hospital 500 yards from the private art museum in Zurich. Monet’s Poppy Field at Vetheuil and van Gog’s Blooming Chestnut Branches were discovered in a parking lot, still behind their display glass and completely unharmed. The two easier-to-carry works, Degas’ Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter, and Cezanne’s Boy in the Red Waistcoat are still missing.

There’s no word about how long the car has been parked in the lot. Did the thieves leave it there immediately after the theft? Or, did they return it there to show they still had the works and were serious about a ransom?

There are also indications that the returned van Gogh may in fact be a copy (Ger.) by his friend and homeopathic physician Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. The Weltwoche, a German-language weekly newspaper publiched in Zurich, has investigated these claims in recent years. Gachet’s copies of impressionist works were the subject of a 1999 retrospective at the Met.

(Photo Credit)

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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

Two Picasso Works Stolen in Switzerland


Two works by Pablo Picasso, Verre et pichet (pictured here), and Tete de cheval were stolen from the Seedamm-Kulturzentrum in Pfaeffikon just outside Zurich Switzerland.

The thieves set of a security alarm when they were leaving, and police are speculating that the thieves may have hidden in the museum until after closing, and then broke out with the works.

Both the Telegraph and the BBC are pointing out this morning that works by Picasso are frequently stolen. One of the now-recovered works from Sao Paolo was a Picasso, and police in August recovered works stolen from the artist’s granddaughter’s home in Paris.

He’s a popular artist to steal certainly, but these works will never be sold on the open market, they are too widely known. I think a more interesting issue is security when these works are loaned out to regional museums like this one, which was the problem with works stolen in Nice last August. I think there are a lot of benefits to loaning works, and sharing collections; however there are trade-offs. Often these smaller regional museums have less-sophisticated security systems given their smaller budgets and collections.

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

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.

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

Stolen Greek Statue Returned to Greece


This 1,900 year-old torso has been returned to Athens after it was seized in Switzerland. It was recovered in March from the Swiss city of Basel. It had been taken in 1991 from the island of Crete. Switzerland has historically been a transit state for many antiquities, however it has worked to change that in recent months by signing on to the largely symbolic 1970 UNESCO Convention, but also implementing that convention effectively by signing bilateral agreements with Peru, Italy and Greece.

I wonder why the Swiss dealer David Cahn who had the statue was not subject to any criminal penalties, or indeed why he gave up the object so freely. Had the object been in the United States, he would have been subject to Federal Prosecution.

This object was not illicitly excavated, but rather was stolen along with 9 other items. From the comments of the Greek Culture Minister George Voulgarakis, it seems he is connecting the return of this theft with the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. Clearly though, the two cases are much different.

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

Prosecution of Marion True and Robert Hecht Resumes in Italy (UPDATED)


There is a slew of new reports marking the continuation of the high-profile antiquities prosecutions in Rome. The New York Times has a piece, and the Washington Post picks up an AP story. Francesco Rutelli also has an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, which can be downloaded from the Italian Ministry of Culture’s website here.

Is there anything new being said? Not really. Much of the back and forth involves trial tactics and public posturing on the part of Rutelli. Though he has some good arguments in his opinion piece, much of it is frustratingly vague or inaccurate. When he speaks of Italy “renouncing possession of these works of art” in reference to 46 contested objects held by the Getty, he conveniently fails to acknowledge the Getty has agreed to return 25 of them. Also, his claims of providing “exhaustive and reliable documentation” to the Getty may be true, however if the evidence were as damning as he indicates, Italy would certainly have first, asked US federal prosecutors to initiate a civil forfeiture action as they did in US v. An Antique Platter of Gold 184 F.3d 131 (2d Cir. 1999). This would have allowed for the return of the objects, while the US Department of Justice foots the legal bills. Thus, it seems to me that the evidence Ruteli is discussing may not be quite as damning as he indicates. He also makes it seem as if the issue of this bronze Athlete found in the Adriatic sea clearly belongs to Italy. This is a gross oversimplification. There seems to be good arguments that the object was found in international waters, and was in fact Greek in origin. Though he may be right that the bronze came ashore in Italy, the law violated would be an Export restriction, not a state-vesting provision. This makes Italy’s claim much different. If nothing else, the article was well-timed to coincide with the reopening of the trial in Rome though.

At the trial itself, the testimony of Pietro Casasanta seems intriguing. He details over 50 years of his experience dealing in Italian antiquities. He was testifying for the prosecution, not because he had any ties with the defendants, but because he played a role in the antiquities trade in general. He indicated that “From one day to the next we went from art experts to criminals…I saved thousands of artifacts that would have been ground into cement. … It’s a shame that they don’t make me a senator for life.” Interesting comments, especially given Italy’s recent efforts at stemming the trade. Perhaps the biggest gain Italy has made in recent years is cutting off Switzerland as a transit state. Switzerland has recently signed on to the UNESCO Convention and, more importantly, secured a bilateral deal with Italy.

UPDATE:

Lee Rosenbaum continues her good work on this controversy by soliciting a response from Michael Brand, Director of the Getty Museum. He clarifies many of the charges leveled against him. Perhaps most interesting, he indicates that the Getty is careful when repatriating objects. In fact, one of the objects claimed by Italy “a Kore … had been claimed by both Italy and Greece, and we now have agreed to return that object to Greece. This is precisely why we have to respond to these claims very carefully.” That seems reasonable, and in fact much of Brand’s comments paint a picture of the Getty attempting to work out a reasonable compromise with Italy.

Of course, the true nature of the negotiation process may lie somewhere between Brand and Rutelli’s conflicting accounts. However Rutelli often seems inclined to elevate the rhetoric. However, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, it would seem that the Italians have accomplished a great deal. Certainly, reputable institutions and museums are now thinking twice about acquiring Greek, Roman, or Etruscan objects which might have come from Italy. A protracted public relations struggle is certainly not good for the public image.

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