Outsmarting Art Thieves

By O'Rourke, Morgan | Risk Management, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Outsmarting Art Thieves


O'Rourke, Morgan, Risk Management


On August 22, two masked men armed with pistols entered the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway and in the midst of a crowd of Sunday-morning art aficionados, pulled two of Edvard Munch's most famous paintings, "The Scream" and "Madonna," from the wall, loaded them into their black Audi station wagon and sped off. The theft was shocking not only because it happened in broad daylight, but because it involved some of the art world's most iconic and priceless images. However, it was only the latest example of a crime that happens all too frequently in museums and galleries around the world.

Major works of art offer thieves an enticing conundrum. Due to lack of funding for security budgets, museums and galleries sometimes cannot properly guard their inventories. And even with sufficient funds, the aesthetic merits of the works usually dictate that they are displayed out in the open for all to appreciate. This ensures that viewers have easy access, but then, so do thieves. The problem is that while something like "The Scream" may be easy to steal, it is nearly impossible to sell on the open market. And definitely not for the millions of dollars that such a work would command in a legitimate auction.

According to David Shillingford, director of the New York office of the Art Loss Register, there are different levels of sophistication to consider with regard to art theft. "The men who walked into [the Munch Museum] with a gun and walked out again do not have that work of art anymore," he says. "They are not the sophisticated people in this operation. The sophisticated people either said to them, Steal this,' or once they had stolen it said, 'OK, we'll take it off your hands.' That's where the skill is involved--it is not in the initial theft. It's in turning it into hard currency."

While it is difficult to make money from stolen art, thefts still persist. Most of the time, thieves have no intention of selling the works for market value but prefer to use them as collateral in other deals. They may be looking to claim any subsequent reward money for the return of the artwork. Or they will hold the works for ransom from owners or insurance companies looking to recoup their losses after paying a claim.

Art thieves can be very patient, many times opting to store the stolen artwork for as long as it takes for a demand to be paid, knowing that as time goes by and publicity dies down, art purveyors will be more willing to make deals to recover stolen property without fearing that their actions will encourage more theft. For thieves, stolen artwork can represent an investment of sorts that may not pay off immediately but will surely bring a return in the future.

Sometimes the motives behind art theft are not financial at all. Stephane Breitwieser, a French waiter and self-professed art lover, was arrested in 2001 after stealing hundreds of paintings over a six-year period worth more than $1 billion for his own personal collection. (In a unfortunate twist, many of the pieces ill the collection. which Breitwieser said Inc planned to return one day, were destroyed by his mother in an attempt to remove the evidence against her son.)

The motive behind a 1994 theft of another version of "The Scream," (Munch painted four versions) stolen from Norway's National Art Museum, initially seemed to be for publicity. A right-to-life group said it would return the painting if an anti abortion film was shown on television, but it was later determined that the organization was not actually behind the theft.

Meanwhile, one of the more widely circulated rumors about art theft involves the "Dr. No" scenario, where shadowy' figures commission the theft of certain pieces so that they can keep them for themselves. However, art experts widely dismiss this theory as Hollywood-style fiction.

Tracking Stolen Art

Regardless of the reasons behind art theft, the fact remains that both famous and lesser-known works of art continue to be stolen from museums, galleries and private collections.

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