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

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.


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.

46 thoughts on “NPF: HEIST”

  • My guess is that some pieces are targeted by someone wealthy and then people go and steal it for them. That solves the "getting rid of it" side.

    But the not being able to display it side…well…I guess they have them just to have the art pieces. I'm 10000% sure there is a thrill from being able to actually acquire something through illegal means.

  • Call me a bigot ("BIGOT!!!!"), but I always used to imagine oil-rich magnates in places unpronounceable by Western uvulas to be the ones who commissioned the thefts.

    But on reflection, I dispute my own bigoted suspicion, since surely the whole point of owning such items is being able to proclaim loudly to the world that one owns such items (remember back in the day when no Japanese multinational was without a half-dozen Picassos in their mid-management toilets?) So the notion of sheiks (or Russian gangsters, or Colombian drug lords, or what have you) giggling conspiratorially over each others' collection of the Old Masters ignores the fact that to such individuals, art is bling, and the one thing bling cannot be is a secret.

    But I'm pretty sure that whoever these men are, they posses the following characteristics: a lotta new money, the delusion that expensive = better, no real taste apart from the neophyte's enthusiasm, an insane conviction that they are in competition with *everyone*, and no morals.

    So…basically, Donald Trump. Only Trump can't be a buyer, because if he ever got his hands on one, he couldn't keep his fucking mouth shut about it for two seconds.

  • What Dbp said on the procurement process.

    Regarding the "display" side, I don't think it's much of an issue. There are plenty of private art collections that no one really knows how big they are (or which pieces they include). Maybe not even the insurers. There are also enough parts of the planet where a dictator or tycoon can have a mansion with some stolen artwork that "everyone" knows are there, but no one can prove or touch him. It's like drug lords- you know who these people are and where they live, but that's not quite enough to knock on their door and flash a search warrant.

  • What you don't think the Koch Bros don't have 1 or 2 of these? Wouldn't be surprised if they've cigars w Thomas whilst sitting under these "replicas".

    The Sultan of Brunei is powerful enough, that if a carrier group passes and he requests fly-by he gets his fly-by. They probably do know who has them. They're just untouchable.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    "And there's no point to expensive acquisitions except to show them off, right?"

    I have this theory, that pretty much everything in life can be explained by something said or done on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (ok, maybe not sex).

    So, here's how I apply my theory to this case.
    Once, Boris Badenov and Natahsa Fatale hatched to plot to rid the world of that "pesky squirrel." They even invited Fearless Leader to come see what would happen.
    If I remember right, Rocky is flying around at a great height, when they shoot him (or something).
    And we see Rocky plummeting, senseless, to Earth, as Fearless Leader watches, delighted, through his binoculars.
    He's chuckling.
    Boris asks him if he can take a look through the binoculars, and Fearless Leader says back to him, crisply, "NO!"
    Boris asks, "Why not?" (Vy not?).
    And Fearless Leader reponds, "Because the only better than seeing something really great – is keeping someone else from seeing it."

    So, this, then, is my theory:
    Some greedy uber-rich Plutocratic @##hole has that great painting, or some of them, stashed in a place where only he or she can see it. And revels in the joy that no one else in the world can share in this unique experience.

    Oh, and if the Rocky and Bullwinkle show can't explain something, then Bugs Bunny and Friends, can! Maybe even sex.

    Btw – needless to say, Rocky is saved, and lives on to thwart many more of Boris and Natasha's nefarious plots.

  • Many times museums don't report the theft because they think the art is more likely to show up on the market that way. But that also means a naive buyer can purchase valid title by virtue of not knowing the painting is stolen – a bona ride purchaser for value retains good title despite the theif's knowledge of the theft. Which at the least means museums in court for a long time.

  • Nobody here seems to get it. I think I can answer the question not because I'm (more or less) in the NYC art world but because I'm a collector—of classical CDs, in my case. I could be a collector of practically anything—Nazi paraphernalia, anything—and understand why an art collector would be willing to pay for a stolen Vermeer, for example, while knowing that he could never, ever show it to anyone else.

    A true collector, rich or poor, is an obsessive. One simply has to have certain items or die trying, if only to complete one's collection. So if you're a Japanese industrial magnate, rich as Croesus (and there are many fabulous private art collections in Japan), and, say, you love Dutch genre painting above all, you'd find yourself stuck with a lot of second-rate de Hoochs, Maes, etc. because they just don't come on the market that often. And you know Vermeer is the top of the heap. And there's one of his you've admired from afar and you know it's not guarded very well. Or, say, someone whispers that he knows a guy who knows a guy that can get you an important, if hot, Vermeer masterpiece.

    You get the idea. If you collect practically anything at all you can relate. But don't sell magnates and tycoons short; some of them are passionate and knowledgeable about stuff, even art. They're not all Donald Trump. Thank God.

  • I believe that the heist that happened earlier this year in France was accomplished because a window was left open and that negated the security system.

    I agree with the other comments that there must be buyers lined up in advance of a heist. I can't imagine a group of thieves stealing these and then sitting on them. It has to be much more fluid than that.

    There was a case a few years ago of a university in Utah receiving a donated piece that turned out to have been stolen during WWII. The family of the original owner took the university to court to get the painting back. (I saw this in a documentary, but of course I can't remember which one)

  • I didn't think it was possible for my respect for CUND to increase, but it has.
    I completely agree that half the fun of owning something rare or especially unique is the secret knowledge that now nobody else can see it. What else is a grossly excessive amount of money for, after all, if not to to indulge our urges while if possible giving the finger to everyone else?
    Also, too, I'm surprised nobody has brought up the 'Mona Lisa' scene in the Freshman (a naive domestic movie without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption..)

  • Bona fide title when you're buying stolen property? I thought you were SOL, and valid title doesn't transfer just because of intent-I guess it's unfair to the buyer but f you can afford a stolen Picasso…and hell, if you want to verify it as real, shouldn't be too hard to realize it was somewhere. If the person you buy it from can't prove they have title to it you shouldn't buy it-that's on you as far as I'm concerned. And anyway it's most unfair to the original owner.

    But I bombed Property in law school, just trying to remember.

  • Like Bozo, I can get passionate about things such as art, literature, and history. Other people might have no idea why something fascinates me. I can imagine sometimes if I had the means and discovered there was a rare, painting, by Joseph Wright of Derby having to do with the early industrial revolution that was being sold, and I know that it's not ever displayed to he public I just might decide to buy it. Also small graeco-roman sculptures, cuneiform tablets are things I would be very happy to have.

    However, I don't want to be a thief so I would not do this. But I would like Bozo's comment if I could.

  • I was pretty puzzled by this as well so I looked into it a few years ago. It's not about displaying or enjoying the art. Stolen artwork is used as currency in the black market for guns, drugs etc. Because the artwork has an independently established monetary value it can be used in place of currency and is impossible to track. Instead of moving money in and out of bank accounts which can be traced, the artwork is exchanged for illicit goods. Theoretically at some point the gangsters could sell the artwork to a dealer and convert it to cash but I guess that rarely happens.

  • There's another angle nobody's brought up: insurance fraud. Say you've got a $50 million painting but you'd rather have the $50 million cash – but the art market is tight, and even under the best circumstances you're looking at paying auction fees and a pretty sizable time-lag. Oh, but if it's "stolen"? Check from the insurers!

  • There are numerous motivations. Some people steal priceless works of art because they are afficionados and want them for themselves. Believe it or not, there are people obsessed enough with art that they don't care about being able to display it, they just want to enjoy it themselves. Some people steal art merely for a sense of adventure and accomplishment. Some steal it in order to make copies and turn them in as recovered "originals" for a reward several times over. Some people — a surprising number, in fact — are obsessed with art in a really bad way, where they believe a particular painting evil or immoral, so they steal or destroy it; instances of people in museums slashing paintings or throwing acid on them are not that uncommon, either. And sometimes it's a combination of factors.

    Re the whole insurance fraud angle: Not to go all Thomas Crown-y on you, but when insurance companies have to pay a lot of money, they investigate. Hard. Sure, if you had your 5-year-old Chevy stolen, you probably can get your claim paid with just a police report. If you had a luxury car stolen, it won't be as simple: your carrier will send its own people to investigate the theft, and you'll probably have to jump through quite a few more hoops than just getting them a police report. And when the item stolen is something that's worth tens, if not hundreds, or millions of dollars, you can bet your sweet tukhos the insurance company ain't just gonna cut you a check. They'll do their damndest to try to find out what happened, and if they get any indication that the theft was orchestrated, they'll disclaim. Feel free to sue. This doesn't exclude insurance fraud as a motivation for theft of art, but it's not nearly as easy as most people seem to believe.

  • Amused covers it quite well, I think, except that I would add to

    "Believe it or not, there are people obsessed enough with art that they don't care about being able to display it, they just want to enjoy it themselves."

    You may be sure that billionaires with private collections have adequate means of display, even if air-conditioned, beautifully lit vaults. The fact that they are the sole patrons of their gallery may sweeten the situation for some. Though I doubt he stole anything, the architect Philip Johnson kept his collection separate from the house, in a (mostly) underground vault, with electric-powered, moveable walls so that he could give himself private re-viewings. Ah, the power of it all…

  • P.S. Since I was being a little snarky with Mr. Johnson, I should explain. His collection consisted entirely of blue chip art; I'd have had a lot more respect for him as a collector if he had more than just names, but included some terrific works by obscure artists as well. That's how you can tell someone who really enjoys great work, enjoys the process of looking at art for its own sake. Though great names didn't get to be great by accident, and a masterpiece, unlike lesser work, is just about inexhaustible for re-viewing pleasure. It never seems to yield up all its mysteries, its magic.

  • There are online market places that are tor services where you can fence that shit. There are tor hidden services for everything.

  • There is no such thing as "bona fide title" to stolen goods. The owner is the person or entity the item was stolen from, and remains so after the theft; when/if the artwork is recovered, it is returned to actual owner.

    I had an acquaintance (friend of a friend) who was a cat burglar, mostly in NYC in the '70s-'80s. He learned his cat skills in the Army (intelligence, of course), and stole art both on commission and on spec. Dude had more nerve than that guy who jumped out of the space balloon…

    Also, much art that is stolen without the theft being commissioned, and is held in storage, and in storage it remains, perhaps "forever."

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Unusually late to the party. As a (small fonts) art collector it's clear that the large font art collectors are rich, eager and unstoppable. For example, a Chinese newly minted billionaire will pay premium for a stolen van Gogh. Some such American will do so too.

    If it's worth a $1 or more, someone will try to get it without paying.

  • mel in oregon says:

    ok, no one else has mentioned this, so here goes with a very unpopular viewpoint. in the united states & much more so throughout the world, inequality has always been the most prominent state of affairs since people started living in large groups with segregation among various peoples. called civilization, but even barbaric tribes had the king or tribal leader, warriors, carpenters & peasants (slaves). so on gin & tacos or any semi-progressive website we repectable middle class people with a college education & pretty well fixed financially have time to worry about matters not affecting us directly such as stolen art painted or sculpted by the masters. it seems slightly arrogant when 2-3 billion people go to bed hungry every night. but then the majority of solid middle class people are very arrogant even though they never realize it. ask a black in the ghetto or an indian on a reservation what they think of a stolen $20 million painting. their viewpoint would be quite different than yours. ok, time to either criticise or ignore.

  • Uh, at least in the United States, one cannot get a valid title to any property from a thief.

    Plenty o'people get an illegal title, though, and continue the fraud.

  • P.S. Since I was being a little snarky with Mr. Johnson, I should explain. His collection consisted entirely of blue chip art; I

    Not exactly stolen, but as he was an ex-Nazi, I wonder if he managed to 'liberate' a few notable pieces during that kerfuffle.

  • To ensure that we I fully grasp the nuances of mel's principle – is it that until world hunger is solved, talking about any other topic makes us arrogant?

  • @Zombie: I didn't know of Johnson's Nazi connections, hmmm. Wikipedia says

    In the 1930s Johnson sympathized with Nazism, and expressed antisemitic ideas.[9] Regarding this period in his life, he later said, "I have no excuse (for) such unbelievable stupidity… I don't know how you expiate guilt."[10]

    I doubt that he bought paintings from the Nazis, however. For one thing it would have come to light by this time. Most of his collection was postwar and American.

    And at least he admitted his idiocy later.

  • Ed, if anybody deserves the FJM treatment, it's this rich bitch. Sorry. That may be vulgar but the disprespect with which she addresses my senator is also vulgar. A bunch of rich people in the background start clapping at the end. What a proud moment in American history! The elite rich applaud themselves for dressing down a sitting senator:

  • The works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum have never been recovered but the museum remains optimistic. The spaces from which the works were removed remain empty including the frames of the Vermeer and Rembrandts. A wonderful museum despite the missing pieces.
    Get in free if your name is Isabella.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Da Moose,
    Dja ever notice that MSM folks, like Mr & Ms Goodlooking FeckinTwit's, are always tough on Democrats, but roll over, and mewl like pampered kittens, when Republicans are on!
    It's like they gave them treats, and rubbed their ample well-fed bellies before they came on.

    I wonder why that is?
    Never mind!
    Don't answer that!!!
    When 6 companies own over 90% of the media, and their assorted mediums, the anwer to that question is blindingly obvious.

  • Well, they don't cover how they fence it (it is conveniently glossed over), but the Norwegian thriller "Headhunters" is about stealing art. It's pretty good too, if you overlook a couple early too easy coincidences.

  • @Cund Yeah, this sort of shit happens in the video game community all the time, especially when companies talk about making their games more "friendly" to people that don't fall into the normal videogame demographic (see Wii). Some gamers will gripe up a huge storm about how companies are "dumbing down" their favorite videogames by making them easier to play or a little less obtuse. OR also, see hipsters and music. Once their favorite obscure band gets famous they are accused of "selling out" and it's not cool to like them anymore.

    It's a common human trait, I think. Nice, comment BTW. :)

  • 1. "Not all art is in museums…" Why should this be such a shock? Over the past few decades, art has appreciated faster and provided a greater ROI than either blue chip stocks or the sort of shady stuff that Mitt Romney does stripping assets from "troubled companies" to improve the profit for investors. The fees of acquisition are also lower, percentagewise than those of many end-load mutual funds. This is one reason why major corporations, non-profits, insurance companies and even health care providers have experts who choose the art they decorate with.

    2. Not all of the art in museums is displayed. Museums make their money on the highly touted exhibits made to appeal to various general interest groups. So yes, you'll see exhibits of the more famous impressionists, while the lesser-known paintings by Sargent, or the Philadelphia school or New York landscape artists languish in the basement vaults. It could be 2015 by the time the museums actually miss some of these hidden gems. In the meantime, they could easily be pilfered by someone with determination or help from museum staff.

    3. It's a lot easier to steal art than to sell it–for many of the reasons already stated by others, above. One major impediment to selling to a willing buyer–who won't care if the art is stolen–is that the thieves rarely move in the same circles as the art dealers the buyers work with, and willingness to sell stolen art isn't something a reputable art dealer will advertise. In addition, while the thieves may steal the art, they rarely remember to steal the authentication papers–which are usually kept in another secure vault. Without that chain of title, the painting may as well have been executed by the guy in the mall who sells cut-rate landscapes.

  • Foggy Magoo's right, it's used for stored value in the black economy. It sits locked away in a vault, and the ownership can be transferred in whole or part even if it's never actually put on display. Same way that stored value in the white economy is based on gold locked away in a vault, ownership transferring back and forth, never actually used for anything.

  • ('cause $2 million in gold would tend to be hidden away and well guarded, and would weigh about 80lb anyway, but you can walk up to a $2 million painting, roll it up, and put it in your coat)

  • The Gardner theft was personally heartbreaking, although it occurred 11 years after it was my job to prevent it, as the head of their Security Dept. My predecessor told me stolen masterpieces were generally ransomed to insurance companies who keep that secret. One day you see an article about their recovery thanks to an anonymous source.

    When I had that job, three pieces were stolen from the DeYoung, in San Francisco. After I moved there those were recovered thanks to an "anonymous tip", so I suspect they were ransomed secretly.

    The agent who interviewed me a month after the Gardner theft said afterward he thought they were in "some Yakuza guy's vault" already. I think they've since dropped that idea.

    It may be the thieves didn't realize those pieces were not insured. That's because Mrs. Gardner's will forbids changing the collection, so the Trustees figured they'd save some money, since they couldn't buy anything to replace them.

    Movie "Stolen" gives a good account of the hunt for them. Btw, we got monthly bulletins from InterPol in those days, listing stolen works somebody might try to pawn.

  • A lot of art theft is really tax/insurance fraud.

    Your friend paints a picture. You insure it for $1,000,000. Then it gets "stolen" (you throw it in the trash) and you either collect from the insurance company or declare a big loss on your tax return. TADA!

    (It's slightly more complicated than this, since the insurers and tax authorities are aware of this scheme; typically it's a sort of pump-and-dump involving overvaluing a minor artist rather than your friend painting a picture. But close enough.)

  • …That really is a sucky FBI logo, by the way. I keep trying to envision that in shades of grey at the top of the official stationery. It's not working.

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