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Why steal a masterpiece? The brutal theft in August of two world-famous paintings from the Munch Museum in Oslo raises the question of why great works of art are stolen, since they are virtually impossible to sell. Martin Bailey proposes some answers, and lists the ten most important missing works of art stolen in the past decade.

Stealing an iconic work of art is one type of crime that virtually never pays. Seizing a masterpiece from a gallery is one thing, but realising its value is a very much more difficult challenge. Most criminals understand this, so the theft of great works of art is relatively rare, considering the many thousands that are on public view in museums and galleries across the world. Nevertheless, there has been a spate of major losses over recent years. 'The increase in top-end art theft is very worrying', says David Scully, of AXA art insurance.

When a masterpiece is stolen, it naturally hits the headlines, although such losses represent only a small fraction of art crime. Art thefts are hugely costly: London loss adjuster Mark Dalrymple estimates that art worth a total of around 300 million [pounds sterling] is stolen in Britain every year (this is based on a very broad definition of art, to include antiques, jewellery, clocks and so on). On a global scale, this figure might suggest several billion pounds a year of losses worldwide. Interpol admits that the illicit sale of cultural property is often regarded as the third most common form of trafficking, after drugs and arms.

In terms of the number of objects, and even total value, the overwhelming majority of stolen art comprises items worth relatively modest sums, in the hundreds or low thousands of pounds. Such objects are usually not easily identifiable and can be quickly disposed of, often in street markets. However, the growth of databases, such as that of the Art Loss Register, means that slightly more important stolen works, especially paintings, are being increasingly well recorded.

Nevertheless, masterpieces are different from most stolen art. They cannot be sold anywhere, since no auction house or dealer would touch them, so they have no open-market value. There is little that a villain can do with their stolen world-famous Munch or Monet. So why do they get taken?

Motives for a theft

Six possible explanations have been cited for the theft of great works of art. One theory is that iconic works are stolen to order, for a private collector who has a secret hideaway hung with his favourite paintings from the world's galleries. The idea of a criminal connoisseur has appealed to film-makers, but no actual example has emerged in recent decades. Until it dues, we should probably regard the existence of a 'Mr Big' as myth.

The second, and perhaps most plausible, motive, is extortion. In many cases, demands are made, but despite the temptation for owners to pay a small proportion of the work's value in order to recover it, there are pragmatic grounds for refusal (as well as legal constraints on paying criminals in most jurisdictions). Anyone who pays up becomes much more vulnerable to being robbed again. If a public gallery is involved, a ransom payment is also likely to encourage thefts from other galleries within the country.

Ransom demands are virtually never openly paid, although rewards are another matter. In theory, the difference between a ransom and a reward is clear. Rewards are relatively modest, typically between 10,000 [pounds sterling] and 100,000 [pounds sterling] for works worth millions (the 350,000 [pounds sterling] reward cited below for a Picasso is unusually high). They are available only under specific conditions, and, crucially, are not payable to anyone involved in the theft, but only to third parties. These may well be criminals who have been involved in other thefts. As Mr Dalrymple points out, 'they are often the best informants'.

It is true that rewards, once paid, can be divided, and some could filter back to the thieves, but obviously this would mean that their takings would be much reduced. At the usual 10,000 [pounds sterling]-100,000 [pounds sterling] level, a reward is not much of an incentive for crime, considering that the theft of masterpieces normally involves a gang, many months of preparation and a high degree of risk--and the problem of ensuring that any reward is passed back through another party.

Occasionally, however, there is a perceived grey area between rewards and ransoms. The most notable recent case involved the recovery of two paintings by J.M.W. Turner owned by the Tare. The pictures, Shade and darkness and Light and colour, had been stolen from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in 1994. They were recovered separately in 2000 2001, by which time their value was around 50 million [pounds sterling]. The Tate admitted that it had incurred expenses of nearly 3.5 million [pounds sterling] on payments for information, legal fees and other costs. Payments to informants were probably well over ten times the initial reward of $250,000 (180,000 [pounds sterling]). The Tate's director, Nicholas Serota, was satisfied that no reward payments had been made to criminals involved in the crime, but there is no way of knowing whether any filtered back to them.

Art as currency

Masterpieces are being used as a form of currency in the underworld. This important recent development seems to occur in four slightly different ways and offers a third possible reason for stealing a masterpiece. Paintings can be sold on for cash, used to pay off an existing loan, provided as collateral for a new loan, or spent on purchasing drugs for resale. A painting will obviously be worth only a tiny proportion of its open-market value, but, to take a simple example, one valued at 20 million [pounds sterling] might be deemed to be worth 1 million [pounds sterling] in the underworld. Because the picture cannot be disposed of openly, the next recipient must believe that he can 'sell' it on in the underworld, extort a ransom payment from the owner or get a third party to obtain a reward and then secure a share.

The best documented case of works of art being used as underworld currency is the second theft from the Belt collection at Russborough House, in Ireland, in 1986. Four years later police in Istanbul seized Metsu's Young woman reading a letter, when it was about to be exchanged for heroin. Four other Belt paintings were recovered in 1993 in Antwerp--Vermeer's A lady writing a letter with her maid, Goya's portrait of Antonia Zarate, another Metsu and a Vestier. They had been offered as security for an underworld loan to buy a stake in an Antiguan bank that would launder drugs profits.

Similarly, there have been widespread rumours that Caravaggio's Nativity, which was stolen in 1969 from a church in Palermo, Sicily, has changed hands a number of times as a form of currency among the Mafia. Art detective Charles Hill, who in 2002 recovered Titian's Rest on the Flight into Egypt, stolen from Longleat House in Wiltshire seven years earlier, believes that it was taken 'to settle a gangland debt', but was refused by the creditor.

Stolen paintings are occasionally used to make political demands, which forms a fourth reason for theft. However, recent examples are rare. On 8 June 2001 a Chagall, Old Vitebsk, on loan from the Russian Museum in St Petersburg, was stolen from New York's Jewish Museum. A few days later there was a demand from a group calling itself the International Committee for Art and Peace, claiming that the painting would be returned only after the Israelis and Palestinians had made peace. In January 2002 the painting was recovered at a Kansas post office, but no further evidence has emerged to link the theft to the previously unknown peace group.

There has been only one clear case of art crime being linked to political demands in recent decades. When the first theft from the Belt collection, of 19 paintings, took place, in 1974, IRA supporter Bridget Rose Dugdale tried unsuccessfully to use them to secure the release of four Republican prisoners from British jails.

What is more common is for political groups to jump on the bandwagon of common thieves in order to publicise their cause. After The scream was stolen from Oslo's National Gallery in 1994, there were demands from anti-abortion activists for television time, but the group turned out not to have been involved with the theft.

Theft to earn respect

A fifth motive for stealing masterpieces might be termed 'trophy crime'. Rather than making money, criminals may simply want to display their prowess--cocking a snook at the establishment and earning the respect of their peers in the underworld. As Charles Hill explains: 'A big art theft sets them above the normal street criminal or drugs dealer. They think they are elevated by the nature of their crime.'

It is quite likely that this rationale lies behind the Munch theft in August. The scream is an iconic image and the decision to take another version of the painting seized ten years ago helped to ensure that the recent crime received international attention. It may also be no coincidence that the 1994 theft took place at the time of the winter Olympics and the latest one during the Athens games. The thieves must have been wanting to make a point, emphasising the brazen nature of their crime.

Finally, works of art are occasionally taken by those with psychological inadequacies. One recent case was Stephane Breitwieser, a French waiter who was accused of stealing over two hundred paintings and antiques from museums and dealers in seven European countries. At his trial in Switzerland in May 2002 it emerged that his mother had destroyed many of the works and dumped others in a canal.

The ten most wanted works of art

Listed below are APOLLO'S top ten 'most wanted' works of art stolen in the past ten years. This survey is confined to the past decade because the more recent the theft, the greater the chance of recovery. However, the time limit does exclude the greatest single loss of recent years, the 1990 theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, of eleven paintings (Vermeer's The concert, three Rembrandts, a Flinck landscape, a Manet portrait and five works by Degas).

The order of the list is based primarily on the financial value of the loss, bur other factors have also been taken into consideration, including art-historical importance. The Cellini salt is in first place, ahead of the more valuable Munchs. The main argument for that is rarity--the saliera is the sculptor's only surviving piece of goldsmith's work, dating back nearly four centuries, whereas there are other versions of the two Munch paintings. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder comes third, reflecting the fact that there is scholarly debate over the extent of Leonardo's hand in the picture.

Moving down the list, it is difficult to assign a position to an individual Iraqi antiquity looted from Baghdad's museum, but the exquisite Nimrud ivory is symbolic of the terrible losses suffered last year--and it is therefore placed fifth. Looting, of course, is merely theft which takes place under anarchic conditions.

In compiling the list, more emphasis has been given to works in public collections, since, other things being equal, these are more important than those hidden away in private hands. Only one of the top ten was a truly private work, a Picasso seized from a Saudi Arabian-owned yacht at Antibes (although the Drumlanrig Leonardo is privately owned, the castle is open to visitors).

All but two of the items are paintings, which obviously tend to be the most expensive works of art. The others are sculptures--the Cellini and the Nimrud ivory. Interestingly, none of the thefts took place in the United States. Is it possible that the reviews of security that took place after the catastrophic theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have left American museums better protected than their European counterparts? Three thefts occurred while building work was under way, a reminder of the extra security risks this poses. The majority of the top ten were extensively reported internationally, but in three cases, the thefts in Piacenza, Antibes and Poznan, very little has been published until now.

The encouraging conclusion is that masterpieces do tend to return. Lord Bath's Titian is back at Longleat. Three important watercolours by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso stolen from Manchester's Whitworth Gallery on 27 April 2003 were recovered the following day. In 2001 the Beit collection suffered its third theft, of a Gainsborough and Bellotto, but both were recovered the following year. There was a fourth theft at the Beit collection in 2002, of five paintings, but these too came back within a few weeks. Further afield, to name just a few cases, there have been recoveries of paintings stolen from the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, the Nivaagaard Collection in Denmark, and the Brucke Museum in Berlin.

It is probably reasonable to guess that over half the masterpieces listed below will be recovered within the next ten years. The fact that it is so difficult to dispose of great works of art means that there is a good chance that most will surface eventually--albeit years, or even decades, later. Nevertheless, the Munch theft is a reminder that there is no room for complacency in matters of security.

1 Saliera, 1540-43, by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71)

Gold, partially enamelled, on an ebony base, ht 26 cm, length 34 cm.

Stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, on 11 May 2003.

Made in Paris in the early 1540s for Francois 1, this is the only surviving example of goldsmith's work by Cellini. One of the most important examples of renaissance decorative art, it could well be worth over 40 million [pounds sterling].

The saliera was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum's Raphael Hall at 4am. The thief (or thieves) climbed scaffolding erected for repairs on the Lastenstrasse facade, breaking a window on the first floor to enter. An alarm was set off when the window was broken, but the Cellini was in the centre of the room and just out of range of a sensor alarm. The thief was in the room for less than a minute, and obviously knew exactly what he wanted (several paintings by Raphael were left). It is unclear why the three night guards failed to respond, but presumably they assumed it to be a false alarm. A cleaner discovered the theft just over four hours later.

Three months later a ransom note demanding 5 million [euro] was sent to UNIQA, the Austrian insurance company used by the museum. Included with it were identifiable fragments from the enamel base of the saliera. There have been fears that the work might be melted down for bullion, but this is unlikely since it is made of thin gold foil with a relatively modest material value. However, it is very fragile, so there are serious concerns that it may have been damaged during the theft. A reward of 33,000 [pounds sterling] has been offered, but it is understood that this may be increased.


2 The scream, 1893, and Madonna, 1893-94, both by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Tempera on board, 84 x 66 cm, and oil on canvas, 90 x 69 cm.

Stolen from the Munch Museum, Oslo, on 22 August 2004.

The Munch theft took place at 11.15am, fifteen minutes after the gallery (in the eastern suburbs of Oslo) had opened to the public. One of the thieves was armed with a gun, and he threatened guards just inside the entrance. His accomplice rushed through the fairly small museum to pull down the two paintings, which were hanging on wires. Although there were visitors in the galleries, they were terrified and unable to act. The thieves sprinted to a waiting car, which was abandoned a mile away. Police did not arrive at the museum until fifteen minutes after the theft.

The value of the two paintings is about 65 million [pounds sterling], according to Interpol, citing the Norwegian authorities--a figure which does nor seem to have been picked up by the international press. Parts of the frames were found near the abandoned getaway car; suggesting that the fragile tempera-on-board version of The scream was in a vulnerable state. As we went to press no reward had been posted, although one may well be.


3 Madonna of the Yarnwinder, 1500-1510, by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Oil on panel, 48.3 x 36.9 cm.

Stolen from Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfriesshire, on 27 August 2003.

For much of the twentieth century the Duke of Buccleuch's Madonna of the Yarnwinder was assumed to be a copy of a lost Leonardo, but when it was exhibited at the National Gallery of Scotland in 1992 Professor Martin Kemp argued that at least part of it was by Leonardo. Since then his confidence in the work has increased, and he recently told us that it is a 'prime Leonardo production'.

However, the latest monograph on Leonardo, by Frank Zollner, describes it as a workshop painting. Its financial value depends oil the attribution, but if fully accepted as by the master, then it could well be worth 50 million [pounds sterling].

The painting was seized from the Duke of Buccleuch's Drumlanrig Castle, north of Dumfries in Scotland, which is open to visitors during the summer. Two men entered as tourists at the 11am opening time, and a few minutes later threatened a young guide, one of them putting a hand over her mouth. They then seized the Leonardo from the staircase hall. The thieves sprinted to a waiting car, where they had two accomplices. By the time police arrived, they were outside the grounds. They abandoned their car two miles away. The painting was insured for only part of its value, but an insurance payment of 3.2 million [pounds sterling] was made. A very substantial reward has been offered (about 100,000 [pounds sterling]).


4 Self-portrait, 1630, by Rembrandt (1606-69), and Young Parisienne by Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

Oil on copper, 22 x 27 cm, and nil on canvas, 32 x 40 cm.

Stolen from the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, on 22 December 2000.

The theft took place at 4.55pm, just as the Nationalmuseum was closing. One thief, armed with a machine gun, held up security staff, while two others ran to different galleries upstairs. They seized three pictures--Rembrandt's small Self-portrait and two Renoirs, Conversation with the gardener and Young Parisienne. The museum is on the waterfront in central Stockholm, and the thieves escaped by boat.

Two weeks later police received photographs of the stolen pictures and a demand for 'several million kroner' for their return. Although this was not a huge sum (3 million kroner is about 215,000 [pounds sterling]), the demand was refused as a matter of principle. Renoir's

Conversation with the gardener was recovered on 5 April 2001, when police stumbled across the painting during a drugs raid in Stockholm. It was in good condition and is now back on display. The Rembrandt and the other Renoir remain missing; a reward of 3,500 [pounds sterling] has been offered for each.

Eight men were jailed for the theft in July 2001. Five were ordered to pay compensation of 23 million [pounds sterling] (21 million [pounds sterling] for the Rembrandt and 2 million [pounds sterling] for the missing Renoir). The museum has yet to receive the money.

Five others, including a lawyer charged with being an accessory to attempted extortion, were acquitted.


5 Ivory of a lion attacking a Nubian, c. 720 BC

Wood, overlaid with ivory and gold.

Stolen from the National Museum, Baghdad, between 10 and 12 April 2003.

During the looting of Baghdad's National Museum around 14,000 objects were taken, of which 4,000 have been recovered in the past eighteen months (see APOLLO, May 2004). Although most important items in the public galleries had been removed for safekeeping before the fighting, a small number of objects (mainly those which were bulky or fragile) were left. Of these, 40 were looted from the galleries, 11 of which were later recovered--most importantly, the Warka vase, the Warka alabaster mask and the inscribed Bassetki statue base. This leaves 29 major antiquities still missing from the galleries.

On artistic (rather than purely archaeological) grounds, the greatest loss is probably this ivory of a lion killing a Nubian in a meadow of lotus and papyrus, excavated at Nimrud. Its importance is all the greater because other Nimrud ivories were stored in the vaults of the central bank and were badly damaged from flooding that occurred during last year's battle for Baghdad. No reward has been offered.


6 Portrait of a woman, c. 1910, by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

Oil on canvas, 63 x 55cm.

Stolen from the Galleria Ricci Oddi, Piacenza, on 18 February 1997.

The Galleria Ricci Oddi is in Piacenza, in northern Italy. Its collection, mainly Italian (and few other European) nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pictures, was donated to the city by Giuseppe Ricci Oddi in 1924. Among the most important works is Klimt's Portrait of a woman. Painted c. 1910, it was later altered by Klimt, who gave the sitter a large hat. These changes have been removed.

Although the painting was stolen on 18 February 1997, the theft was not discovered until 22 February. The gallery was closed for renovations, and some paintings had already been removed, so guards assumed the Klimt had been put into storage. Investigations revealed that the thief had climbed onto the roof and had opened a skylight. He then used a fishing line to hook the painting off the wall. The frame was found abandoned on the roof. The Klimt has been valued at 12 million [pounds sterling], although this may be a high valuation.


7 View of Auvers-sur-Oise, 1879-82, by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)

Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm.

Stolen from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, on 1 January 2000.

The theft took place just before 1.30am, on the first day of 2000. The moment was presumably chosen because noisy millennium celebrations were expected in the city centre. The burglar entered a building site, and then climbed up a partly built staircase to reach the top of the Hindley Smith Gallery. He broke a skylight, dropped a smoke canister into the room, to hide him from cameras, descended a rope ladder and grabbed the Cezanne.

A fire alarm was set off by the smoke and when firefighters arrived it was found that the painting had gone. Shortly afterwards, a demand for a 1 Million [pounds sterling] ransom was received, but this turned out to be a hoax. The Cezanne is valued at 3 million [pounds sterling]. No reward has been offered.


8 Dora Maar, 1938, by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Oil on canvas, 83 x 73 cm.

Stolen from a yacht in Antibes, between 6 and 11 March 1999.

The theft took place aboard the Coral Island yacht owned by a very wealthy Saudi Arabian. It occurred between 6 and 11 March 1990, while the boat was moored in Antibes harbour, on the French Riviera. It is said that the painting was about to be sent to England, while the vessel was going to Barcelona for a refit. The painting does not appear to be recorded in the Zervos catalogue raisonne of Picasso's paintings, but investigators believe it to be authentic and worth around 4 million [pounds sterling]. There have been reports that the canvas was folded and is badly damaged. A reward of 350,000 [pounds sterling] has been offered.


9 View of the sea at Scheveningen, 1882, and Congregation leaving the Reformed church in Nuenen, 188485, by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90)

Both oil on canvas, 41 x 32 and 34 x 51 cm.

Stolen from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, on 7 December 2002.

Thieves scaled the Van Gogh Museum with a long ladder shortly before 8am on a Saturday morning, while it was still fairly dark. Using sledge-hammers, they forced a small hole through a toughened first-floor window. One man squeezed through and grabbed the two paintings. The thieves then abseiled to the ground.

Two men were tried for the theft in July 2004. Octave Durham received a sentence of four and a half years; Henk Bieslijn was given four years. Both men have appealed. The two paintings, which were not recovered, have together been valued at 1.2 million [pounds sterling]; there is a reward of 65,000 [pounds sterling].


10 Beach at Pourville, 1882, by Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm.

Stolen from the National Museum, Poznan, on 19 September 2000.

The painting was presumably stolen shortly before its loss was noticed, at 2pm. The canvas had been cut from its frame and replaced with a crude copy. The Polish museum's stolen Monet is worth around 1 million [pounds sterling]; a reward of 6,000 [pounds sterling] has been offered.

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Date:Oct 1, 2004
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