Stealing Beauty

Art crime in fact and fiction
(Originally written in August 2011. Unpublished.)

Dr No, the first James Bond film made in 1962, features a bravura piece of set-dressing. Penetrating the arch-criminal’s headquarters, 007 walks by an easel displaying Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which had been sensationally taken from London’s National Gallery a year before, and was still missing. The passing screen moment had nothing to do with the film’s plot, yet it made “Dr No” shorthand for any art collecting master criminal: like the one, some have speculated, who looted Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 of treasures including the only existing Rembrandt seascape; or who made off with paintings by Picasso, Modigliani and Matisse from the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 2010.  None of these stolen pictures has yet been found.

Criminologists routinely describe this “criminal collector” scenario as romantic fiction, and so it turned out in the case of the National Gallery's Goya, which had actually been lifted by a 61-year-old lorry driver as (he claimed) a political protest. Actually, famous masterpieces have been stolen for their own sake. When the Mona Lisa was recovered after disappearing from the Louvre in 1911 the thief, Vincenzo Perruggia, claimed that he had “feasted my eyes on my treasure every evening, discovering each time new beauty and perversity in her. I fell in love with her.” His infatuation, however, did not stop him eventually trying to get half a million francs to return her. A better case is Stéphane Breitweiser who,  between 1995 and 2001, stole two or three hundred antiques and works of art, none of which he made any attempt to sell or ransom. But neither of these men were in the league of Dr No. Perruggia was a shabby, disaffected young man while Breitweiser lived with his mother and worked as a waiter: they were more like kleptomaniacs than criminal masterminds.  

If it doesn't look like Mr Big would steal art for aesthetic reasons, he might do so as a useful piece of leverage. In 1986 the Dublin gangster Martin Cahill plundered eighteen paintings from the collection of Sir Alfred Beit at Russborough House, County Wicklow, including works by Rubens, Vermeer and Goya. The gang fooled the security staff into believing the alarm was faulty, then entered the house when the system was shut down – an idea Cahill may have borrowed from the plot of another 1960s art heist film, How To Steal a Million, starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. But the interesting aspect of the Irish robbery was where the paintings eventually turned up: one was found during a drugs bust in Istanbul; many others were recovered from criminal circles in Amsterdam and Antwerp.

These paintings, it appeared, had become chips in a high stakes underworld game, perhaps money laundering, or as collateral for operational finance. Stolen high value art is useful here because its “official” price-tag – somewhere in the millions – is easily verified through press coverage of the crime. It is also hard to fake, relatively simple to move around and eventually exchangeable at a predictable rate of return with the original owners, or their insurance company. The going rate appears to be somewhere around 10% of the insurance value, though the process of collecting the money is likely to be tortuous, and risky.

In Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners, the present director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne, details his involvement as a former Tate curator in the search for two paintings by J.M.W Turner that had been stolen while on loan in 1994 from the Tate Gallery to Germany. Although what precisely happened to the paintings after the theft remains unclear, by the time the local criminals who took them had been caught and convicted, they had long since passed the paintings on. Ultimately the Turners, which were insured for £24 million, seem to have got into the hands of gangsters in East Europe or the Balkans. Nairne was put in charge of getting them back

After much to-ing and fro-ing the first painting was recovered in 2000, and the second two years later, but not before 10 million Deutschmarks (£3.4 million) had been channeled to the criminals, via a German lawyer acting as middleman. This was described officially as a reward, or “payment for information”, but that was a fig-leaf. Effectively, a ransom had been paid, albeit one, as Nairne stresses, for which legal cover was scrupulously obtained both in Britain and Germany.

With considerable astuteness, the Tate had done it at no cost to the British taxpayer. When insurers settle a claim at the full insured value, they become – by a process known as subrogation – the owners of the stolen goods, until the cash value is returned to them. But if the goods have, in the interim, escalated in value, as art often does – the Turners, Nairne estimates, were already worth 50% more after 8 years – how much is the insurer entitled to, the sum originally paid out, or the current value obtainable on the market? The answer can depend on the legal jurisdiction in which the case occurs.

The Tate foresaw and side-stepped this issue before the Turners were found. They convinced the insurers, actually a web of insurance and reinsurance companies, to accept a speculative buy-back of the Turners for only £8 million, leaving a healthy surplus of cash from the original payout of £24 million from which to provide the “reward”. The insurers cut their losses, effectively betting the Turners would never reappear. The Tate, conversely, bet £8 million that it could itself recover the paintings.

The story of how they pulled it off, as Sandy Nairne tells it, is very exciting. But the ending is uncomfortable, for the Tate appears to have rewarded the criminals. The Trustees were not doing anything unusual, however unsavoury, for stolen art is regularly ransomed. The Gardner Museum is quite open about its readiness to pay $5 million; the Musée d’Art Modern might do the same, though we may never hear the details. But it is worth reflecting that, as long as the victims of art crime are prepared to enter such negotiations, the theft of art will continue as a feasible investment for those who consider themselves master criminals.






Posted on July 20th, 2012


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