Why Would Art Thieves Destroy Stolen Art?

Vermeer painting: The Concert (detail)

I read with incredulity recently of the rumour that the works stolen from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam were destroyed by the mother of one of the perpetrators. I also read yesterday that she had retracted her confession to, no doubt, have her arrest overturned.

Nevertheless, forensic examination of the remains inher stove by the museum’s scientists have found some traces of paint, canvas and nails giving credibility to the assumption that the works have indeed been destroyed. The actual value of these works today is certainly in the region of hundreds of millions of pounds although they were insured for considerably less.

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

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

This is not the first time stolen artworks have been destroyed by the thieves or indeed an immediate relative. I recall a similar incident in 2001 following the arrest of a prolific art thief, Stephane Breitweiser, who allegedly stole works from some 170 museums across Europe between 1995 and 2001 and kept the stolen works in the bedroom of his mother’s home on the French/Swiss border.

On his arrest in November 2001, his mother destroyed dozens of Old Masters and shredded the canvasses in her garbage disposal and putting the cut up wood frames with her rubbish. Other artifacts like vases, sculptures and even jewellery items were dumped by her into the Rhône/Rhine.

When her home was raided, no real evidence was initially found and it was only when items began to be washed up on the shores of the Rhine that dredging recovered some more artifacts. The French police estimated the value of the destroyed artworks at in excess of 1.5 billion euros.

Who knows how many other stolen artworks have been destroyed by the perpetrators or their accomplices. The percentage of stolen art which has been recovered is, relatively speaking, not large although no hard data is readily available to confirm or deny this. Stolen works may take more than a generation to be recovered or discovered mainly due to the work coming into the public domain via the sale or inheritance of the chattels from the estate of a deceased.

With the advent of the Art Loss Register set up by the insurance industry in 1991 and the FBI’s National Stolen Art file launched some 3 years ago. With the continued sophistication of IT technology and the Internet and the easy access to computers, it is much easier today for art buyers to check on the provenance of the work they are purchasing and the inventory of stolen artworks on various databases.

It does however remain an enigma whether stolen works will eventually resurface or indeed have already been destroyed. We, I suspect, will never have a definitive answer to this question.

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 Why Would Art Thieves Destroy Stolen Art?

  1. Joanne Colson says:

    Great article, Richard, intriguing!

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