On the trail of the world's stolen art
“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.