The plan may be flawless, the booty priceless and the robbery perfectly executed. Yet art thieves seldom consider how they will get rich from their stolen masterpieces, art-crime experts said.
Seven paintings, including works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin and Lucian Freud were stolen from the Kunsthal museum in the Dutch city of Rotterdam this week. The combined value may be as much as $130 million, yet as long as they are stolen goods, the paintings are effectively valueless, said Olivia Tait, manager of European clients at the Art Loss Register, an online database of lost art.
“On the face of it, art theft seems like an easy way to get money -- after all, you can’t get $5 million by robbing a bank,” Tait said by telephone from London. “Criminals don’t think about the fact that they can’t resell artworks after. Then they realize that they can’t take the paintings across borders because they are listed in all the police databases.”
The Rotterdam burglary ranks among the most spectacular art heists of the last decades. Comparable incidents are the 2010 theft of five paintings -- also including works by Picasso and Matisse -- from the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, and the 1990 burglary from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston of art worth an estimated $500 million.
In neither case has the lost art been retrieved. Once thieves wake up to the difficulty of converting stolen masterpieces into hard cash, they often hide or abandon the paintings, which may not resurface for decades -- if ever.
“Forty percent of stolen artworks return within seven years,” said Ton Cremers, who was head of security at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum for 14 years and has since advised more than 450 museums on security as an independent consultant. “If they don’t return in 10 years, the chances are very small that they will be recovered.”
Sometimes paintings are even destroyed or damaged by the criminals who took them, said Lynda Albertson, chief executive of the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art. The thief who stole Picasso’s “Pigeon With Green Peas” from the Musee d’Art Moderne in 2010 “threw it in a trash container shortly after the theft and the container was emptied before it could be retrieved,” Albertson said.
Even with the difficulty of selling famous stolen masterpieces, Picasso’s works are the victims of theft more often than any other artist’s, according to the Art Loss Register, which lists more than 1,000 missing Picassos.
“Everyone knows who he is, even people with only a couple of years of high-school education,” Cremers said. “These are not specialists in art. It is only in the movies that you get specialist thieves. In real life, it is just ordinary criminals who also steal cars and sell drugs.”
Occasionally “works get traded on the black market, bartered for weapons for example,” Tait said. “But in our 20-year history, we’ve never come across the Hollywood scenario where a passionate art collector commissions thieves to steal specific works of art.”
The paintings stolen from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal were Picasso’s “Tete d’Arlequin;” Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge, London” and “Charing Cross Bridge, London;” Freud’s “Woman with Eyes Closed;” Matisse’s “la Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune;” Gauguin’s “Femme devant une fenetre ouverte, dite la Fiancee,” and Meyer de Haan’s “Autoportrait.”
They belong to a private collection called the Triton Foundation, started by the Rotterdam port entrepreneur Willem Cordia, who died last year at the age of 70. The collection consists of about 250 paintings, drawings and sculptures from the period 1860 to 1970.
About 150 works were on show in an exhibition called “Avant-Gardes.” The Kunsthal has no permanent collection and is reliant on loans to put on shows.
“What happened is every museum director’s nightmare,” Emily Ansenk, the director of the Kunsthal, said in a statement on the website. “This incident came like a bombshell to the entire art world.”
Police said the theft took place at about 3 a.m. local time on Oct. 16 and they are now scrutinizing video footage and talking to possible witnesses. Twenty detectives are investigating the theft, Roland Ekkers, a spokesman for the Rotterdam-Rijnmond police, said by telephone today.
Ekkers said the police received about 20 tips, of which four merit further investigation.
Officers arrived at the Kunsthal just five minutes after the alarm was raised. Local press reported that there were tire tracks on the museum’s lawn after the burglary.
Ansenk described the building’s security as “state-of-the-art,” and in accordance with insurer’s requirements. The police said the thieves entered through a door at the back of the building and that there was no sign of a break-in when officers arrived on the scene.
Many museums don’t have security guards on duty overnight, Albertson said.
“Having staff at night doesn’t necessarily eliminate the risk,” she said in e-mailed answers to questions. In the Paris heist, “the three night guards at that museum all reported that they saw nothing.”
Cremers raised doubts about the suitability of the Kunsthal for art of the caliber of the current show. The building, designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, “is like a box, and there are no barriers for thieves,” he said.
“They should have arranged special security before the exhibition,” Cremers said. “They should have built a special vault inside. They will have problems with future loans.”
Cremers said it’s possible the thieves will attempt to demand a ransom from the Triton Foundation for the paintings. Albertson at ARCA cited the recent example of bond fund manager Jeffrey Gundlach, the chief executive officer of DoubleLine Capital LP, who last month recovered $10 million in art stolen from his home in Santa Monica, California. That was after he offered $1.7 million in rewards.
“The thief or thieves in this Dutch case could see the heirs to the Triton Foundation as a lucrative target,” Albertson said.
Tait said such demands are rarely met.
“Insurance companies discourage it,” she said. “And if you pay some kind of ransom, you identify yourself as someone who is prepared to go along with such demands and open yourself to future attempts.”
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