Friday, May 21, 2010

An analysis on the relative ease of art theft

Excuse the anti-theft sentiment expressed in the article--it's still an interesting piece on some of the ins and outs of art theft, which is relevant in light of recent events across the pond.

Several popular myths endure about art thieves. In our imaginations they are either gentlemen aesthetes whose taste far outstrips their pockets, or nimble cat burglars in black jumpsuits leaping with the surefootedness of Darcey Bussell from balcony to ledge.

These charming fantasies are remote from reality. The epicurean collector who has masterpieces stolen to order is a fiction of the Hollywood producer and the desperate news editor. Most art thieves are opportunist muttonheads, some of whom actually believe they can sell a famous painting when it’s still hot off the wall.

You don’t need to be bright or ingenious to steal from museums. It’s so easy I could do it. The only astonishing thing is that it doesn’t happen more often. The hooded chap who broke into the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris this week forced a padlock and removed a window. The alarms were helpfully switched off; you’d be surprised how often they are in art thefts. You’d also be surprised at the number of small museums that can afford neither alarms nor surveillance. Even in leading galleries bristling with state-of-the-art gizmos we are not dealing with Fort Knox.

Art theft is only slightly more demanding than a smash-and-grab heist, for smashed windows also are the passe-partout of the art thief: ask the directors of the Ashmolean and the National Galleries of London, Norway, Vienna and many more. In the Ashmolean the cover of new year celebrations was used to climb on to a roof, force a window and steal a Cézanne. In the 1960s Kempton Bunton, a pensioner angry about the increase in TV licences, broke a lavatory window at our own National Gallery, and stole Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington recently acquired for what he considered an obscene sum.

But pride of place on the “broken window” lists must go to the Dulwich Picture Gallery with its so-called “takeaway Rembrandt”. Snatched four times in 35 years it has been found in a graveyard in Streatham, strapped to the back of a bicycle, in the back of a London taxi and in the left luggage office of Munster railway station.

If you really want to know how easy art theft is ask Stéphane Breitwieser, a Swiss waiter. Until he was stopped in 2005 he had stolen in a decade 239 objects from scores of museums in six countries. He then set himself up as a security consultant from his cell.

More often thieves don’t even need to break in. They mingle and await their opportunity. When Leonardo’s The Madonna of the Yarnwinder was taken from Drumlanrig Castle five years ago it was lifted by two thieves posing as visitors who strong-armed several Scottish gentlefolk before lobbing it into a car and driving off.

The very practice of placing great masterpieces where people can get close enough to see them means we must accept the inevitability of major thefts. Unfortunately, theft will become more attractive as the art market rockets. Three of the four most expensive paintings at auction are by Picasso and more than 300 works by him missing are because of theft. Perhaps these facts are related.

Art is an increasingly easy option for the criminal underworld. Four years ago thieves raided a security warehouse in Tonbridge, Kent, containing £150 million in cash. They left two thirds of it behind because they could transport only£50 million.

The lone Paris thief walked off with about £85 million under his arm. If he’s clever he’ll realise a decent fraction of that by extortion. Apart perhaps from jewels and Cristiano Ronaldo, no other commodity exists where such vast value is condensed into something so small and portable.

But why steal a Picasso, a Matisse and a Modigliani that can’t be sold? The answer is ransom. In theory ransoms are illegal in Britain: rewards, however, can be offered that lead to the return of the loot and the apprehension of those responsible.

But ransoms, which are legal in parts of the Continent, are paid here and the police turn a blind eye. Five years ago when the Tate paid more than £3 million for the return of two Turners stolen in Frankfurt ten years before, the transactions were described as a reward, but many think the distinction hazy. A similar case was the Longleat Titian, for which a “reward” of £100,000 in cash was left in a supermarket bag at a bus stop.

Surprising quantities of stolen art never resurface. Where does it all go? From court cases involving supergrasses it has been revealed that paintings are used as sweeteners and gifts in underworld drug and arms deals. Producing an important stolen work of art is a way for a gang to establish its professional bona fides. Some gang leaders, eager to insure against capture, are said to hold stolen art in reserve for the moment that they require chip in a plea bargain: a couple of Picassos suddenly discovered in exchange for a reduced sentence.

It is estimated that £500 million worth of art is stolen in Britain every year. So if your pension pot’s looking depressed, your mind might wander to the unknown person who in 2003 entered the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester and removed works by Gauguin, Picasso and Van Gogh. They were found in a nearby public lavatory accompanied by a note of apology stating that the crime had been committed only to show how easy it is to steal from art galleries.

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