On the trail of the world's stolen art

Sat, Dec 22, 2012, 00:00

Spectacular art heists may be imbued with a mythological, almost romantic status, but the underworld reality is far murkier

It was just after 2am when the lone, hooded man approached one of the museum’s south-facing windows and got to work. Had anyone been walking along Avenue de New York, the busy road that separates Paris Museum of Modern Art from the Seine, the intruder would have been in plain sight. But he moved quickly. Rather than breaking a pane of glass, which would have set off a vibration-sensor alarm, he carefully unscrewed the window and put it to one side. Facing him now was an imposing metal grille, but within no time he had sheared through the padlock and gently pushed it open.

As soon as the thief stepped inside the gallery, an infrared sensor detected his presence. That would normally have set off an alarm in the control room at the opposite end of the building, where three security guards were posted that night, but the system happened to be out of order at the time; a replacement part had been ordered but had not yet arrived.

The guards heard nothing. When police later viewed the grainy camera footage, they saw the thief walk calmly through three of the museum’s 20 rooms. He took five paintings from the wall and carefully removed each one from its frame, starting with Still Life with Chandeliers by Fernand Léger and followed by Olive Tree near Estaque by Georges Braque, La Pastorale by Henri Matisse, Dove with Green Peas by Pablo Picasso and, finally, Woman with a Fan by Amedeo Modigliani.

He then climbed out of the window with €100 million in rolled-up masterpieces under his arm and vanished. It was not until 6.50am that morning – May 20th, 2010 – that a security guard on his rounds discovered the missing window – and the biggest art heist in France in a quarter of a century.

The incident reverberated widely, shocking the art world and prompting anguished debate in France about whether its vaunted art institutions were up to dealing with the threat from bands of professional criminals. Police notified air- and seaports of the burglary and issued images of the five paintings to the media to make them harder to sell. The authorities also contacted Interpol, which entered details of the missing works into its database and sent an alert around the world.

Murky business

Art theft captures the public imagination like few other types of crime. The piratical derring-do of the spectacular heist has become a staple of literature and film, imbuing the act with a mythological, almost romantic status that belies its typically more prosaic and violent reality. But even by the opaque standards of global transnational crime, art theft is a notoriously murky business.

The FBI estimates that art and cultural property crime – which includes theft, fraud, looting and trafficking across state and international lines – causes losses running as high as $6 billion (€4.5 billion) annually. But statistics are collated so erratically – some states lack the infrastructure to gather reliable information; others provide no countrywide breakdowns – that few specialists dare to gauge its scale.

Over the decades, however, hunters of stolen art – the network of police, private investigators, insurance companies and dealers who specialise in recoveries – have built up a sophisticated picture of the global black market in stolen art, its main operators and its greatest myths.

One of the nerve centres of that network is the office of Karl-Heinz Kind, a laconic German detective who is co-ordinator of Interpol’s works-of-art unit. Sitting behind his desk in the fortified Interpol complex in Lyons, Kind – a veteran with 30 years’ experience in this area – scans through records of more than 40,000 items, ranging from stolen eastern antiquities to modern masterpieces.

After a major theft, he explains, police occasionally get lucky and track down the stolen items quickly, but more commonly it will be decades before the works reappear. “In the art trade it would be very risky to [try to sell] just after the theft,” he says. “So sometimes items pass through several hands – perhaps up to 10 – before they show up in the market . . . I have several cases where items were discovered 30 or 40 years after the theft.”

When police began their investigation into the burglary at Paris Museum of Modern Art, in May 2010, they initially suspected an inside job. The thief must have known that the alarm was out of order, they presumed. But big gallery thefts involving staff are rare, and that hypothesis gradually receded. As after every high-profile art theft, the media was filled with speculation that the paintings must have been stolen to order by a mysterious connoisseur who craved them for his private collection.

To those in the field, however, that type of Dr No figure is the biggest myth of all. “There is no such person,” says Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register, one of the leading players in global efforts against stolen art (see panel below).

“People who collect art, generally speaking, want to be able to maximise the value of it, which means making it public, exhibiting it, having it researched, put in books. And most people who own art want to be able to brag about it or show it to their friends. There is no Mr Big.”

List of suspects

So if the mysterious connoisseur rarely figures on the list of suspects, who does? Investigators describe a wide spectrum ranging from the lone delinquent to professional burglars and Mafia-style syndicates.

“Every single one of the criminals we deal with is in other crime as well,” says Radcliffe. “Every one of them is into drugs or smuggling or prostitution or fraud. All these criminals work like businessmen. They weigh up the reward-risk ratio – the risk of being arrested or failing against the potential financial reward.”

According to Guy Tubiana, a police officer who acts as chief security consultant at the French culture ministry, that skewed risk ratio has led to increasing involvement by criminal gangs. “Why? Because the risks are a thousand times lower. If you’re caught for drug trafficking, you’ll get a long sentence. If you’re caught stealing a painting, it won’t be that long.”

But here’s the riddle: stealing a valuable masterpiece may be relatively easy, but selling it is virtually impossible. What dealer would buy a Rembrandt that everyone in the business knew was stolen? In his experience, says Karl-Heinz Kind at Interpol, thieves don’t realise how hard it will be to shift the paintings.

“The criminals do not really plan the whole thing,” he says. “What they plan very carefully is how to come into possession of the precious works of art, how to overcome security devices, how to get to the premises and get away. But they do not always plan the following steps very carefully.”

In some cases, gangs try to use the paintings as easily transportable, high-value black-market currency. In 1990, Gabriel Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter, which had been stolen from Russborough House, in Co Wicklow, in 1986, turned up in Istanbul, in the hands of a man trying to barter it for a shipment of drugs.

“First of all, they’re like businessmen,” says Radcliffe. “They sometimes do deals out of bravado – the thrill of the chase, the adrenaline. That drives some of these crimes.

“Two, they always think that they could do better than other people. ‘Okay, I know they couldn’t do it, but a friend of mine has told me that he will take my Picasso or my Titian and give me 3 per cent.’ ”

Ransom is another possibility. The frequency of “artnapping” attempts is impossible to estimate, although Radcliffe says the frequent claim that insurance companies are willing to pay 10 per cent of the value of a work of art is “nonsense”. The Art Loss Register has a strict policy of not paying ransoms, he says. Rewards may be paid where agreed by law-enforcement agencies.

Enhanced security measures, databases and cross-border co-operation have made it more difficult to steal works of art and make money from them. In France – which, after Italy, has more reported thefts than any other country – a 30-strong police unit dedicated to cultural property leads the state’s efforts and has overseen a gradual decline in the crime rate from a peak of 47 museum burglaries in 1998. But with every museum or gallery having to strike a delicate balance between the imperatives of security and public access, few doubt the problem will persist.


A year passed before French police made a breakthrough in the Paris investigation. It came in May 2011, when officers looking into a theft from a luxury apartment in the city arrested Jean-Michel Corvez, a 55-year-old antiques dealer, at his shop.

Through him they tracked down a second man, Vjéran Tomic, a 43-year-old French citizen of Croatian origin. They quickly linked the two men to the museum break-in, and the suspects began to talk.

Interrogated by police, Tomic said he carried out the heist after Corvez offered him a considerable sum for the Fernand Léger painting. According to a Le Monde investigation, Tomic told police he initially broke into the museum to steal that one painting but, once inside, was surprised when the alarm failed to sound. Tomic said he then wandered around the gallery, picking out the four other paintings before climbing out through the window and driving off in his Renault Espace.

Corvez, the antiques dealer, also admitted to having been involved. He told police he was acting on foot of a request from a man “in the Emirates”, whom he refused to name, Le Monde reported. But when the burglary made news headlines around the world, he said, the purchaser took fright and refused to take the items.

Not knowing what to do with the paintings, the antiques dealer said, he then passed them on to a younger friend who worked in the luxury-watch business, who offered to store them and help him look for buyers.

This watchmaker, named Yonathan Birn, was also arrested by the serious crime brigade. Under interrogation, Birn said he panicked as he realised the police net was closing in around him. He agonised for days over what to do with the paintings, which were stored behind a metal cabinet in his Paris workshop, before he eventually took the “monstrous” decision to destroy them. In mid-May 2011, the young watchmaker said, he put all five paintings in the green recycling bin in his apartment building and never saw them again.

All three men are in detention and could face up to 10 years in jail. The police are sceptical about significant parts of their versions of events, and refuse to believe the paintings have been destroyed. Yet despite an extensive trawl involving searches in the US, the Gulf, the Balkans and elsewhere, the trail has gone cold. The investigation continues, in the hope that the story has one more twist left to reveal.

Paintings and numbers Snatched masterpieces

August 1911: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre, in Paris, by Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee, who hid in a cupboard and walked out with it under his coat after closing time. Peruggia was finally caught when he attempted to sell it in Italy two years later.

1974-2002:Russborough House, the Co Wicklow estate belonging to Sir Alfred Beit, was robbed four times between 1974 and 2002, and works worth millions are yet to be recovered. Gainsborough’s Madame Bacelli and Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid were stolen twice; each was subsequently recovered.

March 1990:Early on March 18th, two thieves disguised as Boston police entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole 13 works, including a Vermeer and three Rembrandts, worth a total €375 million. It was the biggest art heist of the past century, and is unsolved.

August 2004:Armed robbers stole The Scream from the Munch Museum in Oslo, the second time in 10 years that a version of the painting had been stolen. Thieves also took Munch’s Madonna. The paintings were recovered in August 2006.

February 2007:Two Picasso paintings, identified by police as Maya à la Poupée, a 1938 portrait of his daughter, and Portrait de Femme, Jacqueline, were stolen from Picasso’s daughter’s house in Paris. The paintings were recovered that August.

October 2012:Seven paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin and Monet, among others, worth an estimated €100 million, were stolen one night in a burglary at the Kunsthal museum, in Rotterdam.

Museum of the Missing Recovering lost art

If the items listed in the database run by the Art Loss Register were housed under a single roof, it would be the richest, most magnificent collection ever assembled.

This Museum of the Missing would contain more than 1,000 Picassos. There would be hundreds of works each by Chagall, Dalí, Miró and Warhol, and enough Rembrandts or Constables to fill multiple galleries.

In all, the collection would run to more than 350,000 items, that being the number of paintings, sculptures, pieces of furniture and antiques listed in the world’s largest searchable database of stolen, looted or missing art.

Last year auction houses and dealers used the Art Loss Register’s database to check the provenance of 400,000 items that turned up in sale rooms, fairs or police searches around the world. But the organisation does not just identify stolen works of art; it also helps recover them for museums and private individuals, charging a percentage of the value – typically about 20 to 30 per cent – for each recovered item.

On a dull, grey morning in his office in north London, Julian Radcliffe, a former insurance and security specialist who is chairman of the register, says he works on “about 20” major museum cases at any one time. His organisation has up to 30 contacts with gangs who are believed to be in possession of “hundreds of pictures” around the world, Radcliffe says.

But recovery is a laborious process that can take years of negotiations. “See that?” he says, pointing to a large stack of boxes filled with documents. “That’s one case.”

To give a snapshot of his work, Radcliffe recounts how he spent the previous weekend. Having for some time been on the trail of a gang that had stolen two paintings, each worth “three or four million”, he was finally instructed to fly to a named city, which he says he cannot disclose. Upon arrival, he was told to take a taxi to a cafe. He was then brought to an underground garage, where he was shown, and allowed to photograph, the two missing paintings.

“These guys are criminals. There is no effective police force in the area, and they’re armed,” Radcliffe says.

“They were stolen from a museum years and years ago, and there had been no trace of them for years. These people had sat on them.”

The paintings were subsequently recovered and returned to their owner.

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