On the roster of international illicit trade, art crime is number three, trailing only drugs and illegal arms.
In all the world there are only 36 Vermeers. Of that tiny number, three – The Concert, The Guitar Player and Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid – have been stolen in recent years.
A museum of stolen masterpieces would rival any of the world’s great treasure houses of art. The Museums of the Missing would fill endless galleries; the collection of paintings and drawings would include 551 Picassos, 43 van Goghs, 174 Rembrandts, and 209 Renoirs……
In 1989…..the superintendent of an apartment co-op in Queens found a stolen Manet still life called Bouquet of Peonies, valued at up to $5 million, hidden in the basement behind a washing machine.
But most stolen art is gone forever: the overall recovery rate is about ten percent. The lone bit of good news is that the better the painting, the better the odds it will someday be found. For the greatest paintings of all – which are the hardest for thieves to unload, since they can never find legitimate buyers – there is the most reason to hope.
Security is neglected….because even the greatest museums face chronic money shortages.
The great majority of stolen paintings are small, because they are easy to hide and to carry.
In the world of art crime, London is one of the great crossroads……The law varies from country to country…..In Italy, for example, if a person buys a painting in good faith from a legitimate dealer, the new owner immediately becomes the rightful owner whether or not the painting was stolen. Japan is nearly as permissive: after two years, all sales are final. …..In the United States, in contrast, the rule is that “no one can sell what he does not own,”……If an American buys stolen art, even unknowingly, the original owner is entitled to reclaim it.
The result is that stolen paintings and sculptures travel a long and circuitous route through the underworld…..
Hard as it is to believe, a great many paintings worth millions of dollars are not insured…The rationale is that “You do not spend Treasury money twice.” In other words, the public, having provided the funds for the purchase itself, should not be further burdened with buying insurance.
When great paintings travel from one museum to another for an exhibit, they are insured, but the insurance is “nail to nail.” …..Theft, which rarely involves more than a painting or two at a time, is seen as a matter for guards and cameras rather than insurers. The Scream was not insured.
….especially those who have inherited paintings worth a fortune, may lie low in fear they will draw the notice of the taxman. Still others are once-grand aristocrats, nowadays rich in land and property but poor in cash, who choose to put their money into replacing a two-acre slate roof or modernizing centuries-old plumbing rather than into insuring dozens of dusty canvases passed down through generations.
Surprisingly, in light of how many people choose to do without it, insurance for art is a bargain. The going rate is a few tenths of a percent, roughly on a par with homeowner’s insurance…….But the rates are low because the risk of thefts is low, and many owners take a chance. The Duke of Buccleuch, for example, owns an art collection worth some £400 million. One painting alone, Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder, stolen in the summer of 2003, was worth perhaps £50 million. The duke had insured his entire collection for £3.2 million
The police, always strapped for money and facing crises on every front, have to choose which crimes to pursue…..The public, too, prefers that the police focus on “real” crime rather than on stolen art. Unsolved assaults are scandals; missing paintings are mysteries.
….the Art Squad has learned over the years, thieves steal art to show their peers how nervy they are, and to gain trophies they can flaunt, and to see their crimes splashed across the headlines, and to stick it to those in power. Thieves steal, too, because they use paintings as black-market currency for deals with their fellow crooks
Vermeer, like Shakespeare, is a genius whose biography is almost completely unknown to us……. “The greatest mystery of all,” in the words of the historian Paul Johnson, “is how his works fell into a black hole of taste for nearly two hundred years. He is now more generally, and unreservedly, admired than any other painter.”
A bigger factor working against Vermeer was his tiny output. No one knows why Vermeer painted so little. The technical perfection of his canvasses – his achievements in capturing the varied textures of cloth and bread and the tile and skin, for instance – reduces even the coolest critics to invoking “miracles” and “mysteries” that lie beyond technique. In the face of such seemingly effortless mastery, it seems natural to assume that each canvas took countless hours. But scholars who have studied Vermeer’s brushstrokes, sometimes with the aid of X rays, believe that he did not work especially slowly, he often applied fresh paint on top of paint that had not yet dried. The biographer Anthony Bailey suggests that for long periods Vermeer did not paint at all. (He notes, too, that Vermeer was a painter obsessed with the play of sunlight, and gray and rainy Holland may often have left him waiting in frustration.)
The novelist and ex-prosecutor Scott Turow ….called cops “our paid paranoids.” “A copper sees a conspiracy in a cloudy day,” Turow wrote. “He suspects treachery when you say good morning.”
F.Scott.Fitzgerald famously observed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
….art historian Robert Hughes points out…the idea of art as an investment scarcely existed before the twentieth century. “One bought paintings for pleasure, for status, for commemoration, or to cover a hole in the ancestral ceiling,”…….. “But one did not buy them in the expectation that they would make one richer.”
Christopher Burge, the president of Christie’s in the United States, told….. “A $1 million sale once was thought scandalous and shocking – then it was $2 million, then $5 million, then $40 million….The $6 million Renoir is now worth $20 million, and the most important of his paintings would go for a lot more (In 1868 Renoir traded a portrait for a pair of shoes.)”…… “Great Impressionist canvasses, worth as much as Rolls-Royces in the 1970s ………now trade at parity with Boeing 757s”
…..in the spring of 2004….In an auction at Sotheby’s in New York City …..an anonymous bidder purchased Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe (The Young Apprentice) for more than $100 million ……Picasso painted it at age 24, in 1905. His world-renowned paintings would come much later …..Boy with a Pipe – “a pleasant, minor painting,” in the words of one Picasso scholar.
Almost everything written in Shakespeare’s hand has been lost, with the exception of six signatures (each spelled differently). With Shakespeare out of the running, the record price for a handwritten document currently stands at $30.8 million, paid by Bill Gates in 1994 for a seventy-two-page manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci.
Often the biggest purchases at auctions are cloaked in secrecy; the bidding is done by an agent on behalf of a buyer whose identity is never revealed. That is a modern development. In the Gilded Age, for example, tycoons gloried in flaunting their art collections……
…..the historian Ben Macintyre observes …. “the ownership and whereabouts of the four most expensive paintings in the world are all unknown.”
In real life, nearly all art thieves fall into two categories …..Either they are bumblers ….or gangsters….
Bruegel produced a great many paintings, but in the nearly four and a half centuries since his death all but forty have been lost…..
Adam Worth was the greatest thief of Victorian England. He provides the single unimpeachable example we know of a thief who stole a beloved masterpiece and kept it locked away, for his eyes only. More than a century ago, Worth stole the world’s most expensive painting and kept it with him, without every trying to sell it or telling a soul, for twenty-five years…….Gainsborough’s portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire ……..Georgina, an ancestor of Princess Diana, was sexy and scandalous, by reputation England’s greatest beauty.
….the amount of art stolen by modern-day gangsters is dwarfed by the amount stolen by the Nazis…..In France alone, according to Hector Feliciano……the Nazis seized one-third of all art in private hands.
….one British art investigator…. “Your average criminal in England, even some of the nasty ones, if they’re stung by another criminal, then, yeah, they’ll kill him. But the Serbs and the Albanians will kill his family as well. And his kids, and the dog, and the cat. And then burn the house down.”
Duddin….explains….that although art is always easy to steal, stealing from Britain’s grand and stately homes ….is easiest of all. The homes are colossally expensive to keep up, and many of the owners have decided that their only chance of survival is to open up to ticket-buying visitors…. “…your own house ….Would you take several thousand people around it, and then think it was secure?”
“Count no man happy before he dies” the ancient Greeks said, by which they meant that even the most successful life can fall apart in a moment.