The Secret History of Art
Noah Charney on Art Crimes and Art Historical Mysteries

The Secret History of Art – Noah Charney on Art Crimes and Art Historical Mysteries

More on Rotterdam Art Heist

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The Secret History of Art was interviewed by a load of magazines and newspapers regarding the recent Rotterdam art heist, including the Washington Post, De Gelderlander (Netherlands), and several Brazilian publications.  As not everyone reads Dutch and Portugese (although perhaps more should), here are some of the interview questions and answers.

How often is stolen art used in barter or collateral situations between organized crime groups, and on what scale?

This certainly does happen, but it requires a certain level of infrastructure available to the criminals.  Smaller, local gangs may not have the capacity to trade stolen art for other illicit goods–that is more the realm of larger, international syndicates, which likewise prefer barter transactions to cash, because cash trails tend to be what authorities seek to trace.  The Cahill example is the most frequently cited of this type, but when I was teaching at Yale in 2009 there was a local example that is more indicative of what happens worldwide, but which falls beneath the police radar.  A heroin addict named Dennis Maluk stole 39 paintings from the New Haven area over a matter of months, trading each one for a day or two’s worth of heroin.  Some paintings were worth thousands, but he gave them to a local gang member, Bruno Nestir, who kept the paintings, unsure as to what he should do with them, and sold the frames.  This is a microcosmic example of no great importance, but it demonstrates what can happen at various levels, from small-scale to large-scale, like the Cahill case.

Why do you consider that the Rotterdam heist would be driven by a desire for ransom?  Do you know of thefts of artworks which were intended specifically for trade between criminal gangs?

The Rotterdam theft seems to me more likely ransom-driven, because of the works stolen.  I don’t know of thefts to essentially harvest tradeable artworks–these tend to be a secondary option when either a) ransom fails, or more often b) criminals look for a buyer and can’t find one (or at least one who does not appear to be a policeman in disguise).  Most of the recoveries of major stolen artworks come through the use of paid criminal informants, and subsequent sting operations involving undercover officers pretending to be criminal collectors.  The Rotterdam theft reminds me of the Buhrle Collection theft, in which two of the four stolen paintings (by similar artists to the Rotterdam theft), were abandoned in an unlocked car across from the museum shortly after the theft.  Though it was never made public, this is most likely because a ransom was paid for two of the paintings, and thus the thieves returned them.

What is the scale of the Rotterdam theft? Can it be considered one of the most spectacular thefts of recent years? How could you judge this theft?

This is certainly one of the more dramatic and larger-scale thefts, because the works were taken from a high-profile institution (we might say second-tier, since it is not a major museum but has a major collection), and the works taken are by very famous artists, but they are not particularly famous works.  There are a few of these high-profile thefts each year, but I should note that overall there are tens of thousands of artworks reported stolen each year.  We only tend to hear about these high-profile thefts, but they can sometimes skew our perspective of a very big international type of crime.

The police don´t speak about the causes of the theft. But, with all your experience, what is your bet about who stole the masterpieces, considering that the paintings are very famous? Some specialists write that the theft was made by a criminal and not a mysterious wealthy collector. So, who could buy these stolen paintings? I make this question because the paintings are very famous.

My best bet is that these works were stolen in order to be ransomed back to the victim or its insurers.  You can read more about my thoughts here: http://blogs.artinfo.com/secrethistoryofart/2012/10/16/rotterdam-art-heist-likely-for-ransom/

In recent times, what was the most common reason why art was stolen?

Most art theft involves illicit trade in antiquities, taken directly from the earth, which have never before existed for modern man.  They therefore never appear on stolen art registries, and can be sold on an open market, with merely a fake provenance suggesting that they were legally excavated and exported.  That might make up as much as 75% of all art crime (that’s a rough guess).  In Brazil, theft from churches or private collections is most common.

With the theft in Rotterdam, many people are condemning the security in the museums of Europe. In your opinion, is the security bad? What could better about it?

Security could always be better, and there is a tendency to over-rely on hi-tech security, like alarms, without considering how staff and guards should be trained to respond to the alarms.  This museum, according to one Dutch source, could have been better-secured.  They had no security staff on-site, and while police arrived within five minutes of the alarms going off, it was already too late.  We teach art and museum security on the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, and we urge not only the use of electronic security measures, but also practical training for guards and museum staff.

Noah Charney is a professor of art history specializing in the study of art crime.  He teaches on the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection and edits The Journal of Art Crime.

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