The Art Theft Industry

Nerves of steal.

On September 4, 1972, three men broke into the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through a skylight. After overpowering, binding and gagging the museum guards, they made off with paintings, jewelry and figurines worth a total of $2-million at the time. Among the stolen works were paintings by Gainsborough and Delacroix, and a rare Rembrandt landscape. Almost four decades have since passed and still the crime—the biggest art heist in Canadian history—remains unsolved.

For as long as items of cultural heritage have been created, theft of them has existed. Yet despite the historic incidence, art theft has significantly increased during the last few decades, mirroring, unsurprisingly, the unprecedented growth of the global art market. The Art Loss Register, an international database of stolen and missing works of art, indicates that 10,000 to 15,000 purloined pieces are registered annually, and that the cumulative number of missing items worldwide was over 200,000 in 2009. Other data compiled by Interpol and the FBI suggest that art theft is the third most profitable criminal enterprise and that international trade in stolen art could be worth as much as $6-billion annually.

Motivations for pilfering art objects are diverse. The appropriation of cultural objects by conquering cultures plays a role in the subjugation of the defeated and is as old as war itself, while the worldwide looting of archeological sites is a sadly regular infringement typically perpetrated for financial return. In other cases, ideology is the motivation for theft, such as has been suggested in one of the most famous robberies in history, the 1911 Mona Lisa theft by Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia. It is said that Peruggia sought to repatriate the work to Italy—though Leonardo da Vinci had actually gifted the work to the King of France. When Peruggia was caught two years later, the painting was returned to Paris.

Artworks are also often held for ransom, such as the case of two paintings by Turner stolen from the Tate Gallery in 1994. The institution paid £3.5-million for their return. Other works end up as bartering chips on the black market: data obtained from undercover investigators reveal that these works are sold for roughly seven to 10 per cent of their fair market value and are typically associated with organized crime syndicates.

So what motivated the Montreal burglars? Experts scoff at the notion of a Thomas Crown–esque “bored billionaire” who pinches paintings for the pursuit, but it is true that some works are taken purely for personal enjoyment. Stéphane Breitwieser stole over 200 artworks from European museums with the sole motive to build a personal collection. Breitwieser was caught in 2005, but over 60 works, including masterpieces by Brueghel, Watteau and Boucher, were destroyed by his mother, who police believe sought to remove incriminating evidence against her son. Other artworks meet similar ends; the high price of metals means large sculptures are often melted down for their scrap value.

The majority of stolen cultural property are not, however, the high profile, glamorous pieces that attract international attention. They are middle or lower tier pieces from museums, galleries, private collections, churches and archeological sites internationally. In response to the rise in cultural property crime, several institutions have emerged to handle the dissemination of information regarding loss and consequent recovery efforts; the Art Loss Register, Interpol, the Museum Security Network and Scotland Yard’s famous Art Squad are among the most active. Auction houses and art and antique dealers often work in conjunction with these organizations to ensure the works they offer do not actually belong to someone else.

The reality, however, is that most artworks are never recovered, leaving holes in collections and in our collective history. This year marked the twentieth anniversary of the biggest art theft in history: in 1990, 13 items worh over $300-million (U.S.) in total, were stolen in less than 90 minutes from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Despite a $5-million reward and assurances of complete confidentiality, the frames hang empty on the museum’s walls, a solemn reminder of the healthy and insidious industry.


Post Date:

September 19, 2010