On the trail of the world's stolen art
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.