The art market thrives on two essentials: longevity of the work and the reputation – or indeed celebrity – of the artist. The role of the buyer of, say, modern art is essential; the often astronomic prices paid at auctions (for, say, a rotting shark in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst) often have little to do with such incalculables as time-worn merit or aesthetic pleasure. So major artworks frequently reside in the homes of the very rich or museums where some butterfingers might mislay a Rembrandt. That’s why the art heist so often takes place there – and the thieves have time and faulty audits to boost their collaborative profits. Perhaps the theft of art deserves a place in the pantheon of crime and lack of punishment. Pete Wilhelm
(Bloomberg) — Last month, administrators at the Boston Public Library discovered that a $600,000 engraving by Dürer and a $30,000 etching by Rembrandt had gone missing. It set off a media firestorm; the director of the museum resigned; and then … just a few weeks after the works went missing, they were found, misfiled, 80 feet away from where they were meant to be.
The artworks’ disappearance and subsequent panic show how helpless law enforcement can be when art — an easily transportable, largely untraceable commodity — is stolen. But not every artwork is created equal, and neither are heists. The quality of the art, it turns out, profoundly affects how the art is pursued: the greater the masterpiece, the greater the uproar over its disappearance. One thing stays constant — there’s an abysmally small chance of getting it back.
Most people are familiar with the big ones. There’s the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, in which 13 works were taken and which has gone unsolved for 25 years. There’s the 2010 robbery of Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Matisse, and Leger paintings from the Paris Museum of Modern Art, where one of the suspects – according to a French report — panicked, destroyed the art, and put the remnants in the trash (lawyers for the suspect refuse to confirm this theory).
In the 2012 Rotterdam Kunsthal heist, yet more modern work by Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Lucian Freud, and Picasso were stolen. The art was reportedly stored in Romania with one of the suspects’ mothers, who claims to have incinerated them in her kitchen stove.
What do these heists have in common? Start with the price tag — today, the paintings from the Gardiner Museum would be worth an estimated $300-million; the Paris Museum of Modern Art paintings were valued close to €500-million ($561-million), according to the Guardian; and the Rotterdam museum’s works were (conservatively) estimated at more than €50-million.
Each theft generated an intense publicity. “Musee d’Art Moderne art theft” generates around 2.5-million search results on Google. That kind of scrutiny, says Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the art theft programme manager for the FBI, makes it “very hard to sell stolen work”. And the more prominent the artwork, the less likely a thief is to sell it. “There are no buyers for masterworks,” says Anthony Amore, director of security at the Gardner Museum and the author of such books as “The Art of the Con and Stealing Rembrandts”. “People talk about paintings selling for 10 percent of their value on the black market,” he says. “But masterpieces are still too expensive even at 10 percent – no-one’s going to spend millions for a work they can never show anyone.”
So major art heists, according to Magness-Gardiner, “are rare. Or I’d go even further and say, very rare,” she says. “Honestly, most of what I see are burglaries that don’t target certain paintings or prints; they target wealthy houses.”
“I tend to look at art theft in three categories,” says Jordan Arnold, a managing director at K2 Intelligence, an art risk advisory practice with headquarters in New York. “There’s the ‘cave hit’, the ‘fire sale’, and the ‘long bet’.” The cave hit, according to says Arnold, is closest to a targeted art heist – in which a group of people target specific art to put it in some sort of underground collection. Most often encountered in the movies.
More common is the fire sale. It’s “the opportunistic criminal, where they’re looking to flip the work to a fence or unscrupulous dealer,” Arnold says. This often happens when someone robs a house, sees an artwork, takes it, and tries to get rid of it fast. Finally, the long bet is when “a thief holds onto the art and hopes that it either goes unreported or the trail goes cold. Then the thief will try to sell it some years later to a proper gallery and claim it’s inherited.”
So: How lucrative is it for the thief? “Very,” says Turbo Paul Hendry, a former art thief who now lectures on art crime and runs the blog ‘art hostage’. “Ninety-five percent of art theft is from private residences, and those items are normally $10,000 or less … On the rare occasion that a multimillion-dollar work — a Picasso, say — is stolen, Hendry says the thief makes “pennies on the dollar”. Still, he says, “if a $10-million painting sells for $100,000, that’s still pretty good for just a night’s work.”
How often is the thief caught? Almost never, says Magness-Gardiner. She estimates that the FBI has a recovery statistic of “below 10 percent” which means thieves get away with art crimes 90 percent of the time. Hendry has an even dimmer view: “Only about 2 [percent] or 3 percent of art is ever recovered,” he says. “When you get to high value stuff, maybe it gets up a little higher, to around 5 percent.”
The way for most collectors to protect themselves, Arnold says, is to do routine audits. “The window of time between when it’s taken and when it’s reported dictates the likelihood of recovery,” he says.
The way for most buyers to ensure they’re not purchasing stolen art, Arnold continues, “is not just to ask the appropriate questions, but to look at the appropriate documents”. Someone might claim that they’ve had a painting for 20 years, but can they show you a sales receipt? Shipping records from the gallery they bought it from?
That level of due diligence has become increasingly exigent. “As art prices continue to soar, you should only expect that criminals are going to look to works of art with greater frequency,” says Arnold. “Art is regularly selling for more than the average cost of a home, but unlike a house,” he adds, “you can just pick art up and walk away.”