Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Get Your Grubby Mitts Off That Masterpiece

Reportedly they fled the scene with the paintings hanging out the back of their van. Memo to moronic art thieves: your odds of unloading them decrease significantly if you damage them! Sheesh!
Three men wearing ski masks walked into a private museum here in daylight, grabbed four 19th-century masterpieces, tossed them into a van and sped off, pulling off one of the largest and most audacious art robberies of all time. [...] On Sunday, the three men who entered the E. G. Bührle Collection here took four paintings — a Cézanne, a Degas, a van Gogh and a Monet together worth an estimated $163 million — but not the most valuable works in the collection. The four just happened to be hanging in the same room. [...] The police said paintings appeared to be sticking out of the back of the white van the men used to make their getaway.
This heist certainly won't be inspiring any Thomas Crown Affair style movie scripts. Not only did the robbers reportedly pass over more expensive works, but they seemed to merely grab four works in a row from one room, suggesting this wasn't a theft to order (which turns out to be a myth it seems). Indeed, the details suggest this was a somewhat clumsy and clearly uninformed run-of-the-mill crime. OK, so one involving $163 million dollars worth of paint on canvas, but still.

It's a fool's game really, though, because more and more the odds of them not getting caught are rather low:
The fact that there are no buyers lined up helps account for the recovery of famous works, [Karl-Heinz Kind, team leader of the works of art unit at Interpo] said, like the Munch paintings, which were recovered in 2006. “The thieves have difficulty finding someone to take them,” he said. “They are obliged to multiply their contacts and proposals. That increases the chances for police.”
Indeed, stealing artwork this famous strikes me as evidence of stupidity, if it's not some sort of political statement. In this instance, I suspect the thieves saw an easy heist and didn't think much past that point. This deficiency will hopefully add to the swiftness with which they are caught.

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28 Comments:

Blogger Ethan said...

If you could snatch (or be given, if you prefer) one artwork, what would it be?

I'd want this Richard Serra... Now THAT would be quite the heist.

2/12/2008 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I totally agree Ed. Somebody has been watching too many episodes of The Sopranos. Paintings are only worth what someone will pay for them. My fear is that when the thieves realize they won't get a big payday, they'll destroy the "evidence."

2/12/2008 09:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another scenario is that a rich oligarch wanted the paintings for his/her private vault.

2/12/2008 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

That scenario is undercut by the evidence that they merely grabbed what they could though. Also:

"For the police and the public, the looming questions were not only who committed the crimes but, given the near impossibility of selling the paintings, why.

A common myth, popularized in the movies, of a theft to order carried out at the behest of a private collector, “is really to be considered a fiction,” said Karl-Heinz Kind, team leader of the works of art unit at Interpol. "

2/12/2008 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I think I'd want Michelangelo's Pietá. Or a Van Gogh. Maybe I should get in touch with those thieves.

2/12/2008 09:46:00 AM  
Blogger Ethan said...

The art robberies that upset me the most are bronze sculptures (such as the Henry Moore and Lynn Chadwick sculptures that were stolen a couple of years ago). It's almost certain that these sculptures are melted down for scrap and lost forever.

2/12/2008 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Me as well, Ethan. There's also the incident with Joel Fisher's bronze sculptures that we discussed here.

2/12/2008 09:57:00 AM  
Blogger f:lux said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/12/2008 10:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fair enough Ed. But I would say that the topic at hand should not be the cunning/intelligence or lack thereof of the robbers , but the pathetically inadequate security of the place housing the masterpieces. A bozo in a mask carrying a pistol can barge right in and walk off with materpieces. Was this scenario too complicated for the crack security team to prepare for? That is the question we should asking. This was no Ocean's 11 (or 12 or 13 at this point) type crime, complicated and ingenious. It was stupidly simple.

2/12/2008 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Fair enough Ed. But I would say that the topic at hand should not be the cunning/intelligence or lack thereof of the robbers , but the pathetically inadequate security of the place housing the masterpieces.

Sad, but true. The museum should have anticipated that wankers would enter waving pistols and walk out with works they can't hawk.

2/12/2008 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Wankers??

Aren't wankers already preoccupied?

2/12/2008 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

LOL, I use it to mean its other connotation, Mark:

–noun Chiefly British and Australian Slang: Vulgar.
1. a contemptible person; jerk.

2/12/2008 11:53:00 AM  
Blogger Oly said...

Am I the only one here who can't help thinking of "The Great Muppet Caper" movie where they steal the jewel in the gallery?

Miss Piggy pulled that one off quite well, as well as Gonzo on the motorcycle.

Now that would be a heist for the ages.

2/12/2008 12:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was imagining Don Knotts and Tim Conway stumbling into the art gallery..."The Apple Dumpling Gang"

All kidding aside...I think the security team and the owners of the place should be publicly excoriated, fired, and interrogated. How in this day and age can such a crime be pulled off? I love the detail about how the alarms actually worked. They went off when the robbers reached for the paintings, but then what? The alarms acted as background music for the crime. Ring ring ring. Oh there go the robbers. Hey maybe we should get their license plate number or something. The insurers are morons as well for approving or signing off on such lack security measures. Duh!

2/12/2008 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

Maybe Karl-Heinz Kind considers the following theories fictional too, but here's what I've heard.

Stolen works might be used as underground currency. Instead of piling up $10m in unmarked bills for an illegal transaction, or setting up numbered Swiss bank accounts, you send along a fancy canvas or two. Easier to transport, harder to detect.

As for bronze sculptures, people might be stealing them to use their metal for art forgeries. One big Henry Moore could make ten small bronze forgeries. I wouldn't have thought that you can still tell that it's "aged bronze" after it's melted, but that's the theory anyway.

2/12/2008 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

The patina on bronze is a separate item from the sculpture. Back in the day there was a whole class of craftsmen who specialized in sculpture patinas, just as there were craftsmen in charge of creating the cast and also the actual casting.

The patina goes away if the bronze is melted down, so there's no reason at all to take an already-valuable sculpture just to melt it down to make more sculptures. If you're just selling it for scrap, I guess it's free money, but otherwise, it's a waste of time. If you're making forgeries, it'd be easier to just buy bronze. Otherwise you might as well steal a Picasso to use the canvas to forge another Picasso. Not really sensible.

Then again, thieves aren't known for being very smart.

2/12/2008 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

Here's an excerpt from a NY Times article of Dec 17, 2006, To Sketch a Thief. It's obviously still a conjecture, but the punchline is that they steal large existing chunks of bronze so the material can't be traced.

A third crime, which Charney has recently discussed with Scotland Yard, was the December 2005 theft of Henry Moore’s "Reclining Figure," an 11-foot-long, 2-ton bronze sculpture that was taken from the late artist’s home in Hertfordshire, England, by thieves using a flatbed Mercedes truck with a crane mounted on the back. Some observers, citing the work’s bulk, have again blamed a Dr. No, while others, including the British police, have assumed it was sold for scrap. But Charney, who says that the metal itself was worth as little as $3,000, thinks he has a better theory. Recalling numerous precedents in art history in which looted bronze artworks were melted down and used to create new art — Gian Lorenzo Bernini himself stripped bronze from the Pantheon to make the massive canopy over the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican — Charney suggests that the Moore sculpture was actually stolen and melted down to make forged antiquities, small items like statuettes or “Greek” coins that could easily be sold to noncriminal buyers at markets or on eBay. By using stolen bronze rather than buying it, the thieves would eliminate the paper trail of the raw materials, he says, and laments that the police failed to target foundries as well as scrap yards during their investigation.

2/12/2008 02:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edward...Ed...EW....I see an Obama logo in the page!!!

You decided to...?

Yes? Say it!

2/12/2008 02:24:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

have faith in the power of hope...always.

Obama for President.

2/12/2008 02:56:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Aha. So they're not using the bronze to make art forgeries, just fake coins and stuff. That makes some kind of sense.

2/12/2008 04:16:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

On the other side of the world another art tragedy:
SEOUL, South Korea -- An overnight fire destroyed a 610-year-old landmark that was considered the top national treasure,

In this case they know where it is, more or less.

2/12/2008 08:07:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

nothing lasts. but change can last because change is an abstract concept that describes the delta in entropy.

I'll take underground economy for 100.

Tell me more stories about money laundering and influence peddling, I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going too.

2/12/2008 11:31:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

It was probably the scientologists. Ask David Hickey.

2/12/2008 11:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fear the work will be destroyed is, unfortunately, a legitimate one. But blaming the museum or the private collection for the theft overlooks the fact that small art organizations have budget restraints. If maintaining top notch security is truly essential, then many of the small groups simply don't have the budget. Should all of the "valuable" art be housed only in the larger museums?

I agree that Obama is totally charismatic. The One, as Oprah described him. He's building the party with all the independents who would have supported Reagan who also promised hope. Unfortunately my con man radar goes nuts when I listen to Obama speak. I truly truly hope I'm wrong.

2/13/2008 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger atomicelroy said...

OK sorry... I'll take them back.

2/13/2008 05:48:00 PM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

Zips - Ask and ye shall receive: Stolen Basquiat recovered. Plenty of money laundering for everyone.

2/14/2008 04:11:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

The strange thing is that the thieves were highly soldier-like professional, and spoke German with "slavic acccents," as was much discussed here in Switzerland, where the works were stolen. They weren't just waving guns around. And they carefully chose, apparently, what they took. Both facts lend credance to thoughts of "orders being placed."

The news tonight said that the car used had been found, with some art in it. The police will reveal what art exactly was in it tomorrow.

2/18/2008 04:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

CBC Radio has some interesting articles on art theft:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/08/03/f-international-art-theft.html

http://www.cbc.ca/books/2011/09/the-world-of-stolen-art.html

I recall hearing on the CBC (sorry, can't find the source) that artworks are stolen not so they can be resold, but so that multiple fakes can be created and sold. Less risk, more gain:

- fakes can be sold repeatedly; the real item, only once.

- to be caught dealing in fakes is not as punishable a crime as being caught fencing stolen goods.

- even if an artwork is recovered, a glib con artist can attempt to convince a customer that the recovered artwork is a fake (PR propganda by the gallery to save face).

- if the customers figure out they've been bilked, they're unlikely to complain to the authorities because they'll implicate themselves.

- and if caught by the authorities, the seller can claim the fake was commissioned by the customer (who would be obliged to concur, or implicate themselves).

4/16/2012 06:55:00 PM  

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