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