« The Experimental Garden | Main | Utter Luxury »

Delanceyplace: Art Thefts

Stealing famous art brings the challenge of overcoming heightened security measures as well as the difficulty of selling an easily identifiable work. Often, the motive is to provide collateral for a large drug deal, writes Sandy Nairne.

Theft of really valuable art has strongly romantic connotations, enhanced in literature
and film. The narrative builds on the nineteenth-century tradition of the gentleman
thief, such as Adam Worth, and on accounts of well-known losses -- whether the Mona
Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, the Goya from the National Gallery in 1961 (fifty
years later to the day), the Vermeer from Kenwood in 1973 or the loss of the Rembrandt
from Dulwich Picture Gallery, stolen four times between 1966 and 1983 (the most
stolen work of art in the world). The invention of mysterious, avaricious collectors
such as H. G. Wells's Captain Nemo or world-threatening criminals like Ian Fleming's
Dr No feeds into the immediacy with which film conveys the thrill of a brilliantly
orchestrated theft, whether Topkapi or The Thomas Crown Affair. This is the context
for some audacious thefts of recent years, in which the loss of the two late Turner
paintings in Frankfurt in 1994 appears as part of a sequence that includes the attack
on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, the thefts of versions
of The Scream in Oslo in 1994 and 2004, the loss of Cellini's Saliera in Vienna
in 2003 and the theft of works by Matisse, Picasso and others from the Musee d'Art
Moderne in Paris in May 2010.

Art crime replays its own myths. Many film viewers would admire as a creative challenge
the ability to overcome complex security systems, whether in a bank, military facility
or a modern museum, and similarly public condemnation of criminal behaviour is reduced
if a thief is clever or ingenious. The 'art' of art theft is extensively explored
within the genre of detective fiction, and the activity of actual art theft may,
in a self-conscious sense, be 'performed' in order to gain kudos in the criminal
fraternity. In addition to the physical and logistical battle to prevent unauthorized
entry to well-protected properties, combating high-level art theft is a struggle
with mythology itself.

In fiction, the shadowy character of the hidden collector is in the background,
and the determined and ruthless detective, male or female, is in the foreground
-- pursuing the criminal perpetrators and the precious art. ... But fiction offers
a rose-tinted view of serious theft: as exciting, daring and part perhaps of a heroic
struggle between good and evil, where the criminal or detective, like an artist,
can be portrayed as an 'outsider'. The actual world of organized crime, with its
brutal connections to the distribution of hard drugs, prostitution, racketeering,
extortion and the sale of illegal weapons, offers a different image that is the
truer picture. A common denominator for many high-value art thefts in the past
ten to fifteen years has been the potential for stolen works to be used as collateral
linked to drug deals. And drug deals invariably relate to extortion, misery and

The experienced art investigator Peter Watson commented in 2003: 'In fact, truly
professional art thieves steal jewellery, which can be re-cut, or they deal in illegally
excavated and smuggled antiquities which have never been photographed before they
come to auction and therefore can't be identified and reclaimed. And the clever
thief deals in second-rate paintings.'

Given the considerable risk of being caught, or not being able to pass on stolen
paintings with obvious recognition value, like the Turners, there is a genuine puzzle
as to why this type of crime is undertaken at all. Making money, combined with a
certain level of bravado, is the simplest answer. Because after a successful theft
each stolen work of art acquires a new 'value' in the underworld: perhaps only 10
per cent of its commercial value, but still potentially a large sum. This is value
that can be utilized as collateral in criminal deals. Such motivation for thieves
has significantly increased as the values at the top end of the fine art market
have shown stupendous growth.

Specialist criminologist Professor John Conklin analyses this financial desire
of the 'motivated offender' through the Routine Activities Theory, which breaks
theft down into five subcategories. First, there are those who steal art in the
hope of selling on to a dealer, either directly or through a middleman or fence
-- although this does not generally relate to high-value works, which by definition
cannot simply be sold on. Secondly, there are those who are paid to carry it out,
who steal on commission. Thirdly, thieves may steal with the intention of ransoming
the work to the owner, seeking a buy-back from an insurance company or doing a deal
of some indirect kind. And, fourthly, those who steal to keep the work for themselves.
Occasional symbolic or political acts constitute a fifth category. ... The fourth
and fifth categories are very rare and seen only occasionally in recent times. It
is clearly financial considerations that are uppermost in the minds of most criminals,
sometimes with an added element of competition.

Author: Sandy Nairne
Title: Art Theft
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Date: Copyright 2011 by Sandy Nairne
Pages: 11-13

If you wish to read further: Buy Now http://r20.rs6.net/tn.jsp?e=0013orfdbJMRkS5EHIkql71kFGeo8MqMVwA-Y09fBHY3mdxg6PQW0mNIdv8nnSipxDAxN7LeepCMN-N3m8VtxYXl4Hesk3fgkLS_X6_X3dC-nk5yDHZbbEBN5rt1k6lpvNS1K3QBu8Pygdh4Qsup-TfYH7XnImZixgOKfrF9nw85bf_qJOTLUXnAdqJrVa5Yh-PKjS8KFFsBGk7BEVfnvmV7MmVSFcukYLBR-GF92Sq8c1a4wmwWZK5XDkaAkZQTf1GL3ezAMqT-EQAE2nrON2jZX9b793OlzUIcPKwvxRLPRG5yKSXBCDeAeHRdAn4vD5A8k47x_WY9NGJFz8cjVjBNZ_PAZ7UOkzt8qC7b6idw11KaqVkXeaKHKiTv0jYBnTYoA90R_9lzVU=

If you use the above link to purchase a book, delanceyplace proceeds from your purchase
will benefit a children's literacy project. All delanceyplace profits are donated
to charity.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.