It’s not enough that the art world is extracting ever higher prices for famed works of art. In fact, these prices are soaring at an amazing rate. So, too, it is evident that the number of art thefts is increasing substantially. In Britain alone, more than £300M worth of art is stolen annually! In fact, art theft is so prevalent that this crime has its own special task force. Art theft is becoming a mob crime which is now second only to drug dealing.
Art Thievery: Stealing for the Sake of Stealing
Art has a value that compares with street drugs. It’s a shocking reality, but the value of the work of art, a well-known work that sits in a museum or an art gallery under intense security, can often be in the millions of dollars. With the recent art auction sales breaking all-time records, well-known works are now worth more than ever.
There must also be an adrenal factor, an emotional ‘high’ behind each major heist. So much so that there have been quite a few movies created around this entire theme. The Heist (Warner Brothers, 2001) follows a group of thieves as they plan and execute a major jewel heist. Art Heist (Columbia 2004) plots the theft of a valuable painting. The Thomas Crown Affair (MGM 1999) chronicles a bored playboy who amuses himself by stealing the most impossible-to-steal works of art. And the list goes on. It’s all in the thrill.
An art heist is usually a well-planned exercise in timing, skill and precision. When thieves broke into the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, Sweden, on May 11, 1987, they had the place well cased, well mapped. The thieves knew what they were after: Henry Matisse’s (1869-1954) painting, Le Jardin (1920). The timing was impeccable. The robbery was executed just moments before the museum security arrived for the regular surveillance. Not only that, but there were no clues, or, at least, very few clues. The work was missing for twenty-five years until 2013 when the ALR (Art Loss Register) recovered this valuable, $1M work. The ALR is the world’s largest international private database of stolen, missing and looted art work.
Art Heists in History
In August 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee at the Louvre in Paris, walked into the museum, lifted Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) famous painting, Mona Lisa (c.1503-1506), off the wall and removed it from the frame. He tucked the painting under his coat and walked out of the museum undetected. The museum detected the loss of the priceless painting later when an amateur artist set up his easel to work on a copy of the painting.
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It took two years to track down the painting. The French police even questioned the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) and the artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) in the hopes of finding some clues. The painting was discovered in December 1913 when an Italian house painter, Peruggia, contacted an art dealer in Florence, claiming to be in possession of the painting. Since then, the famous Mona Lisa has been protected under a glass, under lock and key and under constant security surveillance.
The list of art thefts goes on. The more valuable the work, the more attractive it is to potential thieves. Since 1990, over 60,000 works of art or antiques have been lost, stolen or looted in Britain alone. Another Leonardo painting, Madonna with the Yarnwinder (1501), was stolen from the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland in 2003. In 2012, thieves chiselled a hole in the Durham Museum to steal Chinese artefacts worth £2M. Large sculptures and public art works have also been targeted, including a number of Henry Moore (1898-1986) sculptures.
Art Thievery In The News
The art heists seem to become more daring and, of greater concern to law enforcement, more violent. It’s hard to imagine a typical drug-dealing type of shoot-out all to secure the success of an art heist. But, it is happening much too frequently. There may yet be more movies to dramatize this seemingly growing thrill.
As Andy Bliss, Chief Constable of the Hertfordshire Police which is leading the Association of Chief Police Officers taskforce to crack down on this growing crime, says in The Telegraph, “It is a significant concern to us. Just a single item can be worth many millions of pounds and those sorts of items will appeal to criminals right around the world. Where there’s money to be made, organized criminals will move in if we don’t stop them.”
Paton, Graeme. More than £300m of art being stolen in Britain each year. (2013). The Telegraph. Accessed November 19, 2013.
The Art Loss Register. Home. (2013). Accessed November 18, 2013.
Vincent, Alice. The 10 most-wanted missing paintings. (2013). The Telegraph. Accessed November 18, 2013.