The Romantic Myth of the Art Thief, by AHA alum Charlie Whelton

 

Last week, the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam fell victim to a significant heist, when seven paintings were stolen, including Pablo Picasso’s Harlequin Head and Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, London and Charing Cross Bridge, London.

The art thief holds a peculiar place in the popular consciousness. People who are outraged and appalled by the vandalism of works of art and morally opposed to stealing somehow are still drawn to what is essentially the synthesis. The image, fuelled by films, books and television programmes, is of a suave gentleman thief in a black turtleneck, who uses his intellect, his cunning and an array of gadgets to bypass intricate security systems and carry out his meticulously planned heists. His motivations are none so base as mere money; rather he steals for the thrill of the chase, the intellectual exercise, and for the love of the paintings. Unfortunately, the image rarely lives up to the reality.

When a lone thief stole five paintings worth €100 million from the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, there was no hallway of lasers to negotiate or any need to rappel down through a skylight, in fact the alarm system had not been working for weeks. All the thief needed to do was break a padlock and a window and not wake up the guards (they were rumoured to have been sleeping at the time of the break-in). And this was regarded a heist of ‘extreme sophistication’. Other, less ‘sophisticated’ heists are even further from the fantasy, with the need for skilled planning reduced by the presence of guns. This is not the game of wits films like The Thomas Crown Affair showed us. This is incompetent security and threats of violence.

In fact, in reality, stealing the paintings is the easy part of the whole affair. Once that is done, the thief will often find they do not know what to do with them. It is nearly impossible to sell a well known stolen painting on the open market, and the idea of the amoral wealthy private collector who hires thieves to steal famous artworks appears as much of a myth as the romantic thief himself. As the president of the Tokyo Palace Museum in France said, ‘no collector in the world is stupid enough to put his money in a painting he can neither show to other collectors nor resell without going to prison’.

Where Matisse's La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune once was. From the Herald Sun.

So what does happen to the paintings? A common pattern is that stolen artworks are used in collateral for drug deals or illegal arms sales, moving these paintings from the hands of opportunistic thieves to serious criminals, and further from the fantasy. They may also be used as a bargaining chip; a sort of ‘get out of jail free card’, the idea being that the artwork is hidden until the criminal is arrested for a separate offence when he can swap the knowledge of its location for a reduced sentence. A third possibility is that the thief may simply try to claim the often substantial reward money from the museum for the missing pieces. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston offered $5,000,000 for information leading to the return of the 13 paintings stolen in 1990, although none have been recovered. The sad fact is that a large number of stolen artworks are never recovered; lost or destroyed as in the case of Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, stolen in 1969, or around sixty of infamous art thief Stephane Breitwieser’s collection, which his mother destroyed after his arrest.

Despite all the above, the image of the romantic art thief remains undiminished. The attraction of the cultured outlaw is strong enough to overpower the disappointing reality. However, when you consider the very real possibility that Picasso’s Harlequin Head, taken in the Kunsthal heist, could face a future as a makeweight in drug deals, be stored in secret away from appreciative eyes, and possibly never be recovered, the myth of the art thief loses its romance.

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