Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Going, Going, Gone - What's the Point of Art Theft?

In the very early hours of last Wednesday, under cover of night, one of the most audacious art heists in recent history took place in Paris. The scene of the crime was La Musée d’Art Moderne, opposite the Eiffel Tower, directly across the moonlit Seine. A lone masked robber gained access to the famed museum by cutting a padlock and smashing a window pane at the rear of the building. Once inside, the bandit, moving quickly, helped himself to five famous artworks by 20th century masters, valued at around €100 million. The thief’s modus operandi involved brazenly cutting the paintings from their frames, rolling them up and making off by the same route from whence he came.

The impressive haul included “Le Pigeon Aux Petits-Pois” by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse’s “La Pastorale” and “L’Olivier près de l’Estaque” by Picasso’s cubism period sidekick Georges Braque. Lesser works by Fernand Leger and Amedeo Modigliani were also taken.

The robbery, however daring, was well-planned and flawlessly executed. The paintings hung near each other in the gallery, and the rear window used to enter and exit is in close proximity to the lanes of traffic that zoom ceaselessly by along the banks of the Seine – a perfect escape route which allowed the thief to vanish into thin air! Images of the bandit going about his dastardly business were caught on numerous CCTV cameras inside the museum. Authorities, however, are puzzled as to why the museum’s sophisticated alarm systems were not triggered. The fact that the three watchmen on duty failed to notice that anything was amiss until the cold light of morning has raised suspicions that the robber may have had inside help, or at least inside knowledge.

Upon discovery of the robbery, the French authorities swung into action. The museum was sealed off and experts began searching for clues. The frames, erstwhile homes to the missing masterpieces, were taken away for forensic analysis. Unfortunately, all this effort may already be too late. The innocuous nature of the loot makes it easily and swiftly transportable. Moving five rolled-up paintings is infinitely easier than moving €100 million, the equivalent cash value. Interpol was alerted two days after the robbery, indicating that authorities believe that the paintings may have already left France.

Given the widespread media coverage of this theft, you would be forgiven for thinking that such a daring robbery is rare. In fact, the opposite is true. Depressingly, art theft is a thriving business. The day after the Paris heist, another Picasso was stolen from the home of an art collector in Marseilles. The unfortunate owner was beaten by the intruder. There has been a spate of similar robberies in Marseilles during the past year. Last January, thieves made off with about 30 paintings, again including a work by Picasso, from another private collection. The previous month, an impressionist piece by Edgar Degas, on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, was stolen from a Marseilles museum.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list. According to the Art Loss Register (www.artloss.com), a database of stolen artworks, there are around 170,000 missing works of art. Interestingly, Pablo Picasso is the most sought after artist, with over 550 missing pieces.

Why is art theft so prevalent? What exactly is the point of going to so much trouble to steal an artwork when the re-sale options are so limited? To be in possession of stolen works is instantly incriminating, so thieves will want to offload the loot quickly. But who would the prospective buyers be? A lot of stolen art, especially by well-known masters, is instantly recognizable. Even to the untrained eye, a Picasso or a Matisse is easily identifiable, so duping a hapless buyer into purchasing a stolen artwork is not a feasible or reliable option. Indeed, any art acquired illegally on the black market could never be exhibited publically; it would have to be hidden away from view forever. Any buyer who is brave enough to purchase a stolen piece is taking on substantial risk - this fact alone means the re-sale value of stolen pieces plummets dramatically on the black market.

In reality, most stolen artwork is not sold on the black market. Increasingly, the paintings are held as “hostages”, while thieves demand ransom payments for their safe return, either from the museum or from the State. In 2005, the Tate Britain paid £3.1 million to recover two paintings by Turner, which had been stolen in 1994 while on loan to a gallery in Frankfurt. (The matter had to be dealt with very carefully, as ransom payments are illegal in the UK. It transpired that the Tate eventually paid a reward as opposed to a ransom – however, the distinction between the two is hazy at best!)

In some cases, stolen masterpieces are used as bargaining chips to help broker deals in the underworld, sometimes being exchanged for drugs or weapons. We also cannot discount the possibility that some of these thefts are “made-to-order”, for wealthy, ruthless individuals with powerful connections and low morals.

This collision between the art world and the underworld is ugly and disheartening. Depriving the public of such profound masterpieces is a highly selfish act, which flies in the face of all that art is supposed to represent. I cannot think of a worse fate for a Picasso or a Matisse or a Degas - to be hidden away, unappreciated, its beauty forever tainted with the dirty fingerprints of its captors.

Christophe Girard, the culture deputy for the mayor of Paris summed up the situation when he said: “This is a crime against the heritage of humanity”. Are the paintings lost forever? Or will they be eventually returned to their rightful place in humanity's heritage? Only time will tell ...

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