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Art theft

Who are thieves and collectors of stolen art? Are they all smooth criminal masterminds? Dr Donna Yates explores who commits art theft and why.
The theft of art is often romanticised in the public consciousness. Films and books present a respectful, if not completely positive, view of art criminals. They’re portrayed as either erudite, high society sorts, or brilliant criminal masterminds. Sometimes both. Through the lens of the media, it’s almost as if the attractive, complex, intangible qualities of art have rubbed off on art thieves. That high class thieves engage in high class theft. Yet the handsome, tuxedo-wearing art thief and the evil genius stolen art collector are not even rare. They’re purely a media creation. For the most part, art thieves are like any other thieves. And there is very little romance about them.
They come from all walks of life, many have engaged in some form of non-art theft in the past, and all have identified two fatal flaws in a specific work of art. Poor security and a high price tag. Art thieves are usually not members of the high-end art world, and may know very little about the art market. In many cases, we would characterise art thieves’ motivations as being financial. They steal art because they believe they will make a profit, either from selling it on the black market, or ransoming it back to its owner. This was certainly the case with the theft of “The Stream.”
Another example of this is the 1991 theft of 20 paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The mastermind was an ex-Van Gogh museum security guard who, because of his former position, knew the museum well and knew the market value of Van Gogh paintings. He and his accomplices expected to make a lot of money. In this case, all 20 paintings were recovered and the unsuccessful thieves were convicted. So money might be the primary motivation behind art theft, but it’s not the only one. At times, art has been stolen for political purposes. A classic example of this is the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.
When the painting went missing, it seemed to have all the hallmarks of a political art theft. Surely, no one could sell the Mona Lisa. The thief must have been trying to make a point. The poet Apollinaire was suspected and arrested. He then suggested that perhaps his friend Pablo Picasso had committed the crime as a sort of stunt. Picasso was hauled in by the police and questioned, but ultimately released. Two years later, it was discovered that the Mona Lisa had been stolen by a former museum handyman, Vincenzo Peruggia, who sought to return the painting to his homeland of Italy. And who expected a reward for doing so.
Peruggia was caught when he showed the Mona Lisa to an art gallery owner in Florence who, of course, called the police. Another example of motivation beyond money, in 1974, 12 paintings were stolen at gunpoint from Russborough House in Ireland, the first of three major art heists from that collection. The motivation behind the theft was both to raise money for the IRA and to try to offer the return of the paintings in exchange for the release of one of the thieves’ boyfriends from gaol.
Finally, we see art theft that just sort of defies logic. The motivation behind the theft is either intensely personal are quite confused. For example, on Christmas Eve 1984, over 100 objects were stolen from the Museum Nationale de Antropologia in Mexico City. These represented some of the finest and most well known examples of ancient Mexican art. National symbols that were deemed completely unsellable. The police concluded that this was the work of a professional, true master criminals who were stealing to order for a shadowy collector. However, four years later, most of the objects were found in the closet of a mundane house in Mexico City.
The master criminals behind the heist turned out to be two veterinary school dropouts who spent six whole months designing the theft, but had no clear plan of what to do with the art once it was stolen. Instead, the art in the suitcase came with the thieves as they moved house and moved city. And they eventually tried to trade the objects for drugs. Indeed, a well-known drug cartel member turned in the ex-students to the police. Even other criminals care about art.

Who are the thieves and collectors of stolen art? Are they all really tuxedo-wearing, erudite, high society criminal masterminds? Dr Donna Yates explores who commits art theft and why.

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Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime

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