10/1/12 - stealing valuable art

In today's excerpt - 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:

"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 Mod-erne 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 violence.

"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."


Sandy Nairne


Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners


Reaktion Books


Copyright 2011 by Sandy Nairne


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