The Story of Important Art Thefts

Article excerpt


According to Interpol, art crime is one of the underworld's growth areas, trailing only the drug trade and arms sales in dollar volume. The FBI estimates that theft, fraud and trafficking in stolen art total about $6 billion per year. Yet art theft and its offshoots remain among the quirkiest of crime modes, with a remarkably low success rate compared with, say, robbing convenience stores.

The story of important art thefts has been chronicled in workmanlike fashion by Anthony M. Amore, a lecturer on art crime, and Tom Mashberg, a longtime writer for the Boston Herald.

The authors make quick work of the myth that great art is stolen for the delectation of some reclusive billionaire on his Mediterranean island. Most art heists are by petty crooks who are drawn to Rembrandts in part from name recognition and in part because there are so many of them. The Dutch master's total production is estimated at about 2,000, and the thefts go on. In the two decades between 1959 and 1979, an estimated 25 Rembrandts were stolen, often cut from their frames.

Museums are easy targets, for they are committed to providing the public with access to their holdings. The only physical deterrents, the authors point out, often come in the form of velvet ropes and guards whose long days of boredom can be read in their slumping body language. Even when more advanced security is in place - security cameras and laser beams - they often depend on electrical outlets easily neutralized by thieves.

Prime time for thefts - counterintuitively - is often in the daylight hours when a museum is busiest. Mr. Amore and Mr. Mashberg tell of a heist at the Worcester, Mass., art museum in 1972. When two workers began methodically to remove several paintings from a second-floor gallery, visitors assumed they were museum employees doing their jobs. The thieves were spotted as they left with their booty but succeeded in getting away.

Art theft is of little interest to the man on the street, in part because blood is rarely spilled and in part because the victims most often are rich collectors or faceless institutions. As such, victims are often averse to publicity. …