At 3am this morning thieves broke into the Kunsthal gallery in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, stealing seven paintings: Pablo Picasso‘s “Harlequin Head,” Claude Monet‘s “Waterloo Bridge, London” and “Charing Cross Bridge, London,” Henri Matisse‘s “Reading Girl in White and Yellow,” Paul Gauguin‘s “Girl in Front of Open Window,” Meyer de Haan’s “Self-Portrait,” and Lucian Freud‘s”Woman with Eyes Closed.” The type of paintings targeted were likely stolen for ransom, as there is no black market in which such high-profile art can be sold. Whether or not the thieves realize this, is another question.
The Kunsthal gallery shows works on loan, and these came from a private collection run by the Triton Foundation, whose founder, Willem Corda, died last year. Dutch sources suggest that the security system at the gallery was inadequate, with no guards on-site and the only security surveillance remote. Police arrived on the scene five minutes after the alarms sounded, but it was too late. Little information has been released about the theft, as the investigation is still very much active.
With such high-profile works, or at least works by high-profile artists, there is no black market–the idea of criminal art collectors commissioning thefts or knowingly purchasing stolen art is largely a myth, perpetuated in film and fiction for its romantic and intriguing qualities. There are tens of thousands of artworks registered stolen every year, and in the entire history of art theft, there are only a few dozen individuals who might be considered criminal collectors in the Hollywood sense (Pablo Picasso was one of them, you can read more here). But criminals tend to believe what they see on film–there is plenty of evidence to suggest that criminals think that they can find buyers for stolen art–they often wind up selling to police disguised as criminal buyers, in the relatively low instance of the successful recovery of stolen art (as low as 2% of registered stolen works are recovered, according to some studies, and others are not much more optimistic, with recovery rates only as high as about 10%).
Famous, recognizable art is unfortunately relatively easy to steal, but difficult to cash in on. In cases such as this, there is a good chance that the art was stolen only in order to be ransomed back to the victim, in this case the Triton Foundation, or their insurers. If a ransom demand comes in within a short amount of time, it suggests that this was the thieves’ primary plan–and if a ransom is not paid, then the thieves are out of luck. If a ransom demand comes in after time has passed, it suggests that the thieves tried to “shop” the art, found no takers, and then turned to ransom as a Plan B. Again, if no ransom is paid, the thieves are out of luck. There is no history of art being destroyed if ransom is not paid–it is often simply abandoned (for example, the Munch paintings stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo). Unless the thieves are well-connected with criminal groups, and can therefore use the stolen art for barter or collateral (as in the famous Martin Cahill/Russborough House case of 1986), then there is little else they can do beyond attempt ransom. Unless you’ve got a very clear idea of how to profit from stolen art, art theft is a very bad idea–while alas the chance of a criminal who steals art being caught is slim, the chances are also very slim that a criminal can profit from it.
Noah Charney is a best-selling author and professor specializing in art crime. He teaches the history of art crime on the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.