Art Theft and Art Recovery Delusions

Bill AndersonBlog, News


Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuene

On Friday, two paintings by Vincent Van Gogh stolen in a 2002 major art theft were recovered following an investigation into a group linked to the Italian mafia. The Naples-based Camorra crime clan was discovered to be in possession of the “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuene” and “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” stolen from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

The Art of Selling Stolen Art

Once again we saw experts in the field question the rationale of thieves who think they can profit from the theft of such works. It is certainly true that very few dealers would even entertain the idea of transacting a sale of works of this order of value and prominence. The vast majority of dealers would report even a sniff of illegality.  In that sense it would appear to be a dead end game for anyone thinking they can make a quick $30 million. Therefore, the conclusion is that people who attempt to steal or succeed in stealing and holding stolen art for a period of time are unsophisticated and naïve to the workings of the art market.

A Change in the Playing Field?

But hold on. Is that to say the frequency of major art thefts will decline? Or that we should take comfort in the fact that stolen works will invariably resurface? Or that people who steal are smart enough to see the writing on the wall? I would not bet on it, nor should the art world.

A host of potential disappointments awaits those who think the climate has changed. We know with pretty much certainty how the 14 works were stolen from the Gardner in 1990. By now we’re also pretty certain of who did it and that a person or persons associated with the art theft know where the paintings are. If a $5 million reward isn’t enough to cough them up, the chances that they will be found diminishes greatly. Insurance companies will claim that they no longer pay ransom for stolen art. But why would they admit to that? Any knowledge of that policy would simply encourage more attempts.

A Zero-sum Game

If the Gardner works are found they will have been out of the public eye for over 25 years. The Van Gogh’s found in Italy were gone for a mere 14. It’s likely that the Warhols stolen from the Springfield Art Museum will surface. But when? And at what cost? There is always the possibility that masterpieces will suffer the fate of those stolen from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal Gallery, including works by Lucian Freud, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet and Picasso. The evidence is very strong they were incinerated to cover the tracks of the thieves. There are over 100,000 works of art in the Art Loss Registry. All but a few pieces are likely never to be seen again.

It’s not okay to be sanguine about the threat of major art theft. The downside is too great to feel there’s no rational motivation for theft, and recent history shows that incidents of art theft are in fact on the rise. Fine art works are treasures that the world values very highly, and to dismiss their vulnerability simply because it doesn’t make sense to steal them is a losing bet.