Art

What Happens to Stolen Art After a Heist?

The most high-profile art heists almost always end in disaster. But what about the bulk of art crimes you don't hear about?

An empty frame in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where 13 paintings were stolen in 1990.

An empty frame in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where 13 paintings were stolen in 1990.

Photographer: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Last month, administrators at the Boston Public Library discovered that a $600,000 engraving by Dürer and a $30,000 etching by Rembrandt had gone missing. It set off a media firestorm, the director of the museum resigned, and then … a few weeks after the works went missing, they were found, misfiled, 80 feet away from where they were supposed to be. 

The works’ disappearance and the subsequent panic underscored how helpless law enforcement can be when art—an easily transportable, largely untraceable commodity—is stolen. But not every artwork is created equal, and neither are heists. The quality of the art, it turns out, profoundly affects how the art is pursued, which makes intuitive sense: The greater the masterpiece, the greater the uproar over its disappearance. Only one thing stays consistent: Once art is stolen, there’s an abysmally small chance of getting it back.

Major Heists

Most people are familiar with the big ones. There’s the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, in which 13 works were taken and which has gone unsolved for 25 years; there’s the 2010 robbery of Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Matisse, and Leger paintings from the Paris Museum of Modern Art, where one of the suspects—as reported by Le Journal du Dimanche—apparently panicked, destroyed the art, and then put the remnants in the trash (though according to the article, lawyers for  the suspect refused to confirm this theory); and there was the 2012 Rotterdam Kunsthal heist, where yet more modern work by Gaugin, Matisse, Monet, Freud, and Picasso were stolen. The art was reportedly stored in Romania with one of the suspects’ mothers, who claims to have incinerated the paintings in her kitchen stove.

A painting by Édouard Manet that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
A painting by Édouard Manet that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Édouard Manet, Chez Tortoni, ca. 1879-1880

What do these heists have in common? Start with the price tag—today, the paintings from the Gardiner Museum would be worth an estimated $300 million; the Paris Museum of Modern Art paintings were valued close to €500 million ($561 million), according to the Guardian; and the Rotterdam museum's works were (conservatively) estimated at more than €50 million. Not coincidentally, each theft generated an intense amount of publicity. (“Musee d'Art Moderne art theft” generates around 2.5 million search results on Google.) That kind of scrutiny, says Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the art theft program manager for the FBI, makes it “very hard to sell stolen work.” Plus, the more prominent the artwork, the less likely a thief is to sell it. “There are no buyers for masterworks,” says Anthony Amore, director of security at the Gardner Museum and the author of such books as The Art of the Con and Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists. “People talk about paintings selling for 10 percent of their value on the black market,” he says. “But masterpieces are still too expensive even at 10 percent—no one’s going to spend millions for a work they can never show anyone.”

That’s one reason that major art heists, according to Magness-Gardiner, “are rare. Or I’d go even further and say very rare,” she says. “Honestly, most of what I see are burglaries that don’t target certain paintings or prints; they target wealthy houses.” And those thefts have very different results.

Incidental Burglaries

“I tend to look at art theft in three categories,” says Jordan Arnold, a managing director at K2 Intelligence, an art risk advisory practice with headquarters in New York. “There’s the ‘cave hit,’ the ‘fire sale,’ and the ‘long bet.’” The cave hit, says Arnold, is closest to a targeted art heist, wherein a group of people target specific art to put it in some sort of underground collection. Unsurprisingly, this is the least frequent type of theft—more likely to occur regularly in Bond films than in real life. More common is the fire sale. It’s “the opportunistic criminal, where they’re looking to flip the work to a fence or unscrupulous dealer,” Arnold says. This often happens when someone robs a house, sees an artwork, takes it, and tries to get rid of it fast. Finally, the long bet is when “a thief holds onto the art and hopes that it either goes unreported or the trail goes cold,” Arnold says. “Then the thief will try to sell it some years later to a proper gallery and claim it’s inherited.”

The empty wallspace where a painting by Henri Matisse was stolen during a robbery at the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam.
The empty wallspace where a painting by Henri Matisse was stolen during a robbery at the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam.
Photographer: Robin Utrecht/AFP/Getty Images

So: How lucrative is it for the thief? “Very,” says Turbo Paul Hendry, a former art thief who now lectures on art crime and runs the blog art hostage. “Ninety-five percent of art theft is from private residences, and those items are normally $10,000 or less. Once they’re stolen, they’re passed through the hands of middlemen and reappear for their full market value.” Hendry cites the example of a Meissen porcelain figurine. “You might have 500 or 1000 versions of the same figure,” he says. “Who’s to say which is stolen and which is not?”

On the rare occasion that a multimillion-dollar work—a Picasso, say—is stolen, Hendry says that the thief makes “pennies on the dollar.” Still, he says, “if a $10 million painting sells for $100,000, that’s still pretty good for just a night’s work.”

And how often is the thief caught? Almost never, says Magness-Gardiner. She estimates that the FBI has a recovery statistic of “below 10 percent,” which means thieves pull off art crimes 90 percent of the time. Hendry has an even dimmer view. “Only about 2 [percent] or 3 percent of art is ever recovered,” he says. “When you get to high value stuff, maybe it gets up a little higher, to around 5 percent.” 

Often, art theft is so successful because “sometimes people don’t even recognize that the art’s gone missing” says Magness-Gardiner. “It could be in a storage facility, or in the basement of someone’s house, and it can often be years before anyone notices it’s gone.” 

Frames that held five paintings stolen from the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris in 2010.
Frames that held five paintings stolen from the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris in 2010.
Photographer: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

It should be no surprise, then, that when criminals have a multiyear lead time, selling the art is easy. “Often, even when we find the stolen property, we don’t find the thief,” Magness-Gardiner says. “It’s often passed through so many different hands, and is years later, so actually figuring out who stole the work is pretty rare.”

Prevention

The way for most collectors to protect themselves, Arnold says, is to do routine collection audits. “The window of time between when it’s taken and when it’s reported dictates the likelihood of recovery,” he says.

The way for most buyers to ensure they’re not purchasing stolen art, Arnold continues, “is not just to ask the appropriate questions, but to look at the appropriate documents.” Someone might claim that they’ve had a painting for 20 years, but can they show you a sales receipt? Shipping records from the gallery they bought it from? 

As the art market continues to grow, Arnold says, that level of due diligence has become increasingly exigent. “As art prices continue to soar, you should only expect that criminals are going to look to works of art with greater frequency,” he says. “Art is regularly selling for more than the average cost of a home, but unlike a house,” he adds, “you can just pick art up and walk away.”

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