The Myth of the Fine Art Thief

Vermeer painting: The Concert (detail)

On 18 March 1990 two young men dressed as police officers walked unchallenged into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Some 81 minutes later they had taken 13 major paintings with a total value of approximately $500 million including 3 of Rembrandt’s works and Vermeer’s The Concert, the most valuable painting ever stolen.

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633. Stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 1990.

The works were not insured and to date have not been found even though in 1997 the museum increased its reward for recovery of the works to $5 million.

This story demonstrates one of the key risks facing those involved in owning, dealing, buying, transporting or displaying art to the public: Art theft.

The art world has many sectors—museums and exhibitions, private, corporate and state collections, art dealers, auction houses—each of which is exposed to risks unique to that sector. But the issue of art theft has, for many years, been at the forefront of media attention to the exclusion of most other incidents involving art.

The Dr. No Fallacy

The most enduring myth attached to the thefts of famous paintings is labeled the “Dr. No fallacy.” This is the notion that a sinister and elusive tycoon has masterminded and commissioned the theft, has employed professionally and technologically brilliant thieves to carry out the crime and has provided his specialist villains with a strict shopping list based on his refined sensibilities. The work then ends up in the mogul’s private lair appreciated only by him. This myth began with an iconic moment in the 1962 James Bond film of that name.

Bond is shown strolling past Francisco Goya’s recently stolen Duke of Wellington portrait whilst deep inside Dr No’s hidden headquarters. Bond does a double-take as he passes what he instantly recognises as the purloined painting and mutters, “So that’s where it went.” This line in the film has helped propagate the misconception of the mystical über-rich connoisseur thief.

Goya's The Duke of Wellington

The Duke of Wellington, by Francisco de Goya, 1812–1814. Stolen from the National Gallery, London, 1961; returned 1965.

One of the main reasons for the resilience of the “connoisseur thief” myth is that when art is stolen there is an irresistible tendency to insert high intrigue into the drama. Goya’s Wellington was actually stolen from the National Gallery at the height of the Cold War prompting the Soviet media to refer to the theft as a capitalist plot.

This was far from the truth. The painting was stolen by a tubby, penny-pinching Englishman, Kempton Bunton, who was upset with the British Government’s decision to spend money on the Goya while he was being charged a licensing fee to watch BBC television.

The painting’s recovery in 1965 was certainly not Hollywoodesque. Unable to force the Government to eliminate the license fee Bunton simply gave the painting back leaving it at the luggage room at Birmingham rail station. Although the police had interviewed him subsequent to the theft, they had discounted him as a suspect figuring that at 61 he was too old to accomplish the deed. They had bought into the concept of a globe trotting thief with cultured tastes.

Myth Versus Reality

Investigations on the large number of art thefts show the reality is far grubbier and far less romantic than the myth. Research shows that in the main, major art theft is committed by common criminals, not lone-wolf specialists. Since there are museums or important art collections in any major city around the world, the fact that art is so often a target should come as no surprise.

When Cellini’s Saliera was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Viennain 2003, leading investigators were adamant that the object—a gold and jewelled salt cellar—was stolen for ransom by Albanian gangsters.

Cellini's Saliera

Saliera, by Benvenuto Cellini, 1540-1543. Stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in 2003; recovered 2006. Photo Credit Gothika, Wikipedia.

Some 3 years later, the Saliera was recovered due in part at least to the confession of the thief. It transpired that the individual concerned owned his own security company in Vienna. On the 11th May 2003, whilst taking a stroll in the area near to the Museum Quarter he strolled inside and, being a security expert, he noticed the lack of security and invigilation within the area of the museum containing the Saliera. He then proceeded to take the piece out of the museum hidden on his person and buried it in the woods near to his home.

For 3 years it remained buried until he decided to confess all to the police. The insurers of the museum resisted paying the claim of some 24 million euros on the grounds that the museum did not exercise due diligence in the protection of the object. Ultimately, this resulted in the creation of the Austrian Indemnity programme.

Another illustration of the heedless rush to portray art theft as a conspiracy comes from the U.S. In 1955 authorities at the Brooklyn Museum in New York discovered that 8 rare silver figurines had been stolen. Puzzled, police told the public that the theft was the perfect crime committed by cunning international pros.

Later, it was discovered that the figurines had been taken by two 14-year-old boys who pocketed what they thought to be some unusual looking toys. Cases like this explain why in our business the first version of the story you hear is always wrong.

Why is Art Theft Worthy of Concern?

The American FBI estimates that theft, fraud, looting and trafficking in stolen art and antiquities are crimes that surpass $6 billion a year in terms of value. It is also widely recognised that trafficking in illicit art ranks with drugs, weapons, and money laundering in its global pervasiveness.

The international Art Loss Register maintains an enormous database of stolen works around the world. The list includes works by iconic artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso, van Gogh, Vermeer, Rubens, Titian, and Cėzanne.

How can items of such astonishing value and rarity so often fall prey to criminals, both the petty and the sophisticated? There are two overriding reasons:

  1. For decades museums, galleries and individuals oversaw these precious works with inadequate security arrangements.
  2. The iconic status of some of the artists concerned makes for an irresistible impulse to steal these works.
Van Gogh's Vase mit Pechnelken

Poppy Flowers, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1887. Stolen from the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo, Egypt, in 2010.

It is only relatively recently that security systems have been technologically modernised and are now far more complex for thieves to overcome and certainly more cutting edge than they were even in the ’90’s.

And the issue facing art owners, be they in the private or commercial art sector, is that the specialist art insurance market falls dramatically short in providing any realistic relief via insurance to bona fide owners of works purchased in good faith and who find themselves in possession of stolen or spoilated art.

Purchasers are faced with the legal costs in defending such claims or pursuing the seller of the work. I am aware of only one insurer who is prepared, under certain conditions, to give “Title Coverage” to their art insureds at realistic limits of cover. I feel strongly that the other art insurance specialists must seriously consider providing more substantial and sophisticated cover to their art insurance customers.

It may well be that alternative methods of funding losses from such exposures may well be the only route open to art owners if the conventional specialist art insurance market fails to respond soon.

About Richard Nicholson

Richard is the executive director of fine art for Willis' Fine Art, Jewelry, and Specie practice, based in London. …
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One Response to The Myth of the Fine Art Thief

  1. Sue Chamberlain says:

    A really interesting, informative piece by a man with exceptional knowledge of Fine Art insurance.

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