Monday, February 25, 2008

Big Art Heists: What do they do with the art that they steal?

A couple of weeks ago there was a big art heist in a private museum in Zurich, Switzerland. Three gunmen in ski masks and dark clothes burst into a museum just before closing time, yanked a few paintings off he walls, and sped off with works by Monet, Cezanne, Degas and van Gogh valued at $163.2 million.

Check out the full story here:
But people keep saying that such big art heists don’t make any sense: after all, the robberies are reported so widely and the artworks are so well known that they can’t be sold, even on the black market, right?

(Above: Stolen Monet)
Why do people bother to steal highly recognizable artworks? Are they just stupid amateurs?

Sometimes they are. Unfortunately, most art collections aren’t exactly rolling in the dough, and few can afford the kind of high-tech security systems featured in movies like “The Thomas Crown Affair” (I liked the one with Steve McQueen best, myself…) In fact, lax security probably explains a whole lot of theft, which is often perpetrated on the spur of the moment. Ultimately, most of these artworks are found by the police, left in bus stations to be “discovered”, or destroyed by the thieves when they realize they have no idea how to sell them.

But they’re not all amateurs…

Here are a few reasons to steal big-name art:

Paintings are “ransomed” back to the insurance company for less than the total insurance payment. Thus you might steal $163 million dollars worth of virtually un-saleable paintings and get a few million from the insurance company to give them back. This type of story is kept under wraps. Typically one reads that the police received an anonymous tip to the location of the paintings; the insurance pay-offs are kept mum.

Paintings are occasionally stolen by order. This seems to be a motivation more common in Hollywood than in real life, but the truth is that museum security is sometimes shockingly lax, and a big-name underworld figure might increase his/her status by owning a notoriously stolen work of art. Or maybe they’re huge Cezanne fans…one never knows.

Perhaps the most typical reason, recently, is to be used as “chips” in drugs/arms smuggling deals. Art crime is now the third most common international crime, and is often linked with organized crime (called “criminal enterprise”). Once an item is stolen, headlines proclaim its worth. Thus criminals have a number to start with: they can use the painting as a “chip” to hold while awaiting payment on drugs, arms, or other smuggled merchandise.

(Above: Stolen Cezanne)

For lots more info on theft and forgery in the art field -- or to offer them a lead if you have any about lost or stolen art-- check out the great website of The FBI Art Squad --

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