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Big frame hunters and the search for lost masterpieces

Priceless artworks are so easy to steal it makes you wonder why thieves bother with banks. Andy Round reports on the impossible fight facing the world’s recovery artists.

By Andy Round

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The robbery was short, sharp and violent. The two men wearing police uniforms knocked on the back door of Boston’s grand Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the US and demanded to be let in. There were reports of a disturbance they said.

Unsuspecting, the guards opened the doors only to be overpowered, gagged, handcuffed and locked away in a basement. Upstairs, the thieves got to work snapping priceless works from their frames. First, a Vermeer, next a Flinck and, quickly, three Rembrandts…


Thirteen paintings later, the men were gone and they took the security camera’s video footage with them. All that remained were a few broken frames and a lot of empty wall space. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the theft and there is still no sign of the paintings that are worth an estimated US$500 million.


Announcing a US$5 million dollar reward in collaboration with the FBI, the museum’s director of security Anthony Amore said: “The investigation into the 1990 theft remains very active. We continue to work every day to recover the stolen masterworks.”

Thieves who stole The Scream left a note saying, “Thanks for the poor security.”

Interpol, the international police agency, estimates that the amount of stolen art changing hands every year totals US$5 billion. After arms and drugs trafficking it is the most international lucrative illegal trade and it’s easy to see why. Most museums just can’t afford the security to protect their works.


When thieves targeted Sao Paulo Museum in 2007, they simply got in at night while guards were changing shift. There were no alarms or motion sensors and the security cameras did not have infrared. There was also no insurance. The paintings were worth US$55 million and premiums were impossible.


After a thief managed to steal the US$1.3 million Corot painting Chemin de Sevres from the Louvre in 1998 in broad daylight from a room without CCTV, investigators concluded, “Security was so poor it would be easier to steal one of the museum’s 32,000 exhibits than take an item from a department store.”


Are works being sold to fund Islamic State?

Some crimes are particularly galling. The thieves who stole Munch’s The Scream in 1994 simply smashed the first floor window of the National Gallery and threw the painting down to a partner who was holding the ladder. They left a note saying, “Thanks for the poor security.”


Some crimes are acts of cultural terrorism. Both Interpol and the FBI have voiced their concern over the looting of museums in Syria and Iraq and the sale of their treasures to fund terrorist groups such as Islamic State.


In a statement to Lifestyle, Interpol said: “Preserving the rich art history of the Middle East which is increasingly threated by the actions of terrorist groups is a global responsibility which requires a coordinated global response.”


Part of that response, it says, is the creation of a global platform for the sharing of information about stolen artworks from the Middle East and international training initiatives for law enforcement officers and customs officials to counter the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage.


Usually it is private homes that are targeted by thieves at night

Looting, robberies, handy ladders and poor security — most art crime is down to opportunity. There are no shadowy galleries of underworld art organised by rapacious Hollywood villains.


“Thieves are opportunists always on the look out for goods lying around unprotected,” says Edward Dolnick, author of The Rescue Artist. “Museums, churches and isolated country houses make tempting targets. The whole point of galleries is to display their treasures and all criminals see are framed million-dollar bills.”


Karl-Heinz Kind, who heads up Interpol’s Art Theft Unit that manages a database of works that have been stolen across 186 countries, says: “Actually most art thefts are not committed in museums, those are the ones that tend to make headlines.” 

“Usually it is private homes that are targeted by thieves at night. Often there is poor security or just carelessness. Thieves might find an unlocked door or window or just put a ladder against a wall. We’ve had instances of thieves using scaffolding on a house that allowed access to rooms containing art.”


The Interpol database is used for the cross-referencing of art works for collectors and dealers and Kind admits he is often frustrated by victims of crime who have not even gone to the effort of photographing their priceless paintings or even registering them. Without an image to circulate, the chances of sourcing a stolen work are dramatically reduced.

Real art theft professionals will never steal objects that are well known

Still, police investigations do turn up results. In February this year, a Pablo Picasso painting worth more than US$2.5 million was discovered by US Customs and Border Patrol after being sent via Fedex from an individual named only as ‘Robert’ to a specialist storage facility. The package was marked ‘Art Craft – 30 Euros – Merry Christmas’.


However, the extent to which the police can dedicate resources to art theft in a world increasingly threatened by terrorism, trafficking and violence is open to question. Enter the Art Loss Register, a database that is marketed as the world’s largest private international catalogue of more than 200,000 lost and stolen art works.


Julian Radcliffe who heads up the organisation says the database acts as deterrent to art theft because criminals realise the high risk of selling on items that can be cross checked at the swipe of a smartphone.


“Real art theft professionals will never steal objects that are very well known or worth a great deal because they are so difficult to sell on,” Radcliffe says. “They realise that the discount on well know pieces when selling on to an intermediary is just not worth it.”

Radcliffe has recovered more than a thousand works

Another function of the Art Loss Register is to recover stolen works of art. It’s complicated and involves tip offs, insurance agents, informants and occasionally undercover operations. More important is the liaison between collectors, auction houses and dealers. Most of the items are found through the screening of auction catalogues where the consignor has no idea of provenance or through inquiries that may come from the police, dealers or collectors.


Radcliffe has played several high profile roles in the recovery of stolen works and since the register was set up in 1991, he says more than 1,000 works of art worth an estimated US$300 million have been recovered from more than 300,000 annual searches including a Manet and Picasso.


A typical story emerged in 2009 when ‘intermediary’ Anthony Blok, 72, was jailed for four years after attempting to sell a stolen US$1 million painting that had been registered with Radcliffe in 1993. In court Radcliffe said: “We were able to protect a legitimate dealer who searched with us and assist the police with their investigation.”


In December the same year, the register’s discovery of an attempted sale of seven paintings stolen in 1978 – including a US$30 million Cezanne – led to the jailing of a retired Massachusetts lawyer following the brokering of a ‘recovery deal’.

Picassos hidden under washing machines

However, despite the instant accessibility of online information, there are still opportunities for private detectives. Private art investigator Charley Hill has reportedly recovered masterpieces worth over US$100 million by posing as an variety of undercover characters ranging from an exotic art lover who is worth ‘doing business with’ to a representative of the famous Getty Museum.


The former Vietnam veteran’s underworld networks and a genuine love of art have lead to some high profile cases such as the recovery of the US$60 million Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid by Vermeer which had been among 18 works stolen from Russborough House in Ireland in 1986. The paintings had been stolen to fund the IRA terrorist organisation.


By posing as a crooked American art dealer working for a Middle Eastern businessman, Hill linked up with an Irish intermediary who was keeping the Vermeer in Belgium. After months of confidence building Hill finally cornered the Irishman with the paintings in an elaborate US$1.5 million sting involving European SWAT teams.

'The guys who steal works of art were usually stealing hubcaps before'

Hill has seen every art theft trick in the book. Priceless Henry Moore bronze sculptures that have been melted down for scrap, Picassos hidden under washing machines, Vermeers swopped for drugs and Serbian war criminals demanding ransom for two Turners to fund a weapons deal. He was also the driving force behind the recovery of The Scream after the 1994 robbery.


His knowledge of art theft runs deep, but for all his underworld contacts and experience, Hill says there is one over-riding stereotype that is light years away from the glamour of the art thieves in The Thomas Crown Affair. “The guys who steal works of art were usually stealing hubcaps a few years earlier. They are not exactly Hollywood material.”

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