NPF: HEIST

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 21st, 2012 by Ed

When I was young I wanted to be in the FBI. I thought it would be cool to catch bad guys all day. It wasn't until later that I realized that J. Edgar Hoover might not have been the hero I imagined as a six year old, and still later when I figured out that most of what agencies like the FBI do is really dull. Then you reach a certain age and the dull stuff seems exciting again, albeit in a very different way. And on that note, there exists something at the FBI called the Art Crime Team. Ironically, they have the worst logo in the history of ever.

FBI Art Crime Team logo
Seriously?

Apparently it's not a misleading name. They find stolen art. Unbeknownst to me at the time I discovered its existence, apparently art theft is a thing. A thing that happens, like, all the time. In my mind, the idea of stealing something from an art museum seems about as plausible as breaking into the White House and having brunch in the Oval Office. But then it dawned on me that not all valuable art is in an art museum. There are private galleries, art dealers, homes & offices of the wealthy, warehouses, and art museums that, uh, don't exactly have the level of security you'll find in the Smithsonian.

As a kid I was fascinated by the story of the guy who stole the Mona Lisa in 1911. He was caught in 1913 and the painting was recovered. Neat cops-and-robbers story, right? But apparently there are a lot of extremely valuable works from well-known artists that have been stolen and never recovered. For example, in two separate heists from major museums, one of Rembrandt's few landscapes and his sole seascape (which I remember distinctly from undergrad art history classes) were stolen and have never been seen again. Vermeer's The Concert, stolen from a major museum in Boston in 1990, is valued at over $50,000,000 and remains missing.

Vermeer_The_concert

These stories usually have a happier ending. Law enforcement is aided by the fact that it's pretty damn hard to do anything with a conspicuous masterwork after you've stolen it. And this is the part that really intrigues me. Once you've swiped a Picasso – presumably for financial gain, right? – what in the hell do you do with it? Surely the usual auction houses would be aware of the theft. You can't exactly put the thing on eBay. Is there some underground stolen art sales network where these paintings are sold to Russian mobsters and third world kleptocrats? Even those folks wouldn't be able to display it, I'd imagine. Certainly word would get out, even if they displayed it only in private. And there's no point to expensive acquisitions except to show them off, right?

I suppose we'll never know. Can anyone shed some light on this? If nothing else, today you learned that it doesn't exactly require Ocean's 11 level thieving skills to steal multimillion dollar artwork, judging by how regularly it seems to happen.