TED Talk on Art Theft: How To Steal from the Louvre

The Secret History of Art gave a TEDx talk on art theft, entitled “How To Steal from the Louvre,” in November.  The video is now online and can be viewed here.  A rough transcript of the talk is below.

Noah Charney TED Talk on Art Theft


Noah Charney

December 2000, Stockholm, Sweden.  The sky is crisp, clear, and cold, as citizens head off to work or for some last-minute Christmas shopping.  Suddenly the air is ripped by sound.  Car bombs explode at several points around the city.  The police, thinking this is a terrorist attack, rush to the bomb sites.  Just as they do so, a car drives up the only road leading to Sweden’s National Gallery, which sits on a peninsula into the bay.  The riders scatter tire spikes on the road, to burst the tires of any cars that might pursue them.  The car pulls up in front of the museum, and men get out wearing balaclavas and carrying submachine guns.  They rush into the museum, which is full of visitors.  They shout them to the floor, grab paintings, including a Renoir and a Rembrandt, and rush outside.  They escape using a speedboat that has pulled up in the water behind the museum.

This is not the opening to a new James Bond movie, although it would make a good one.  This is a real life art heist of the sort that I study.

My name is Noah Charney.  I’m a writer, a professor of art history specializing in art crime, and the founder of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, an international non-profit research group.  I combine roles as an art detective, historian, and criminologist when I teach a course on the history of art crime on the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.  And today, I’d like to talk to you about art theft.

2009, the Louvre Museum, Paris.  A crazy Russian hurled a mug of tea, freshly purchased at the Louvre cafeteria, at the world’s most famous painting.  The mug bounced harmlessly off the bullet-proof case that houses Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and the Russian was quickly whisked off to a mental hospital.  But this incident highlighted a hole in the multi-million-Euro security system at the Louvre.  Though it’s nearly impossible to sneak a weapon into the museum, apparently you can buy one once you’re inside for about 1.75 Euro.  Had any other work been targeted, one not protected by a case, then some real damage could have been done.  And this incident, particularly the protective case around the painting, links back to the most famous theft in history—not just art theft, but theft of any object—when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre back in 1911.

In 1907 an anarchist slashed an Ingres painting in the Louvre collection.  Fearing for other paintings in the collection, the Louvre commissioned the construction of protective cases for their most famous works, including the Mona Lisa.  One of the men building those cases was Vincenzo Peruggia.

Peruggia was an Italian painter who came to Paris for an art career.  But he had not had much luck, and so made ends meet working as a handyman, and in this capacity, suddenly found himself with a Louvre worker’s uniform and access to the Mona Lisa.  He hatched a plan to steal it, ostensibly to repatriate it to his native Italy.

Peruggia was under the mistaken impression that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Italy by Napoleonic soldiers.  This was a pretty good guess, as tens of thousands of artworks had been stolen from Italy during the Napoleonic wars.  But the Mona Lisa had been legally purchased by King Francois I of France when Leonardo died.  But Peruggia didn’t know this.

It is 7:15 in the morning on 21 August 1911.  Peruggia crouches in a dark closet inside the Louvre.  His worker’s uniform clings to his sweaty skin, as he listens for the footfalls of the night guards, as they fade into the distance.  He slips out of the closet, crosses the galleries, and approaches the Mona Lisa.  He removes the framed painting from the wall, and quickly carries it to a service staircase.  There, in the darkness, he removes the painting from its frame, and carefully wraps it in a white sheet.  He makes his way down the staircase to the exit, which opens to the Court of the Sphinx and will lead him out of the Louvre complex.  At the bottom of the stairs, he faces the doorway.  He reaches out a sweaty palm and clasps the brass doorknob.  He twists.  The door does not open.

He fights down his panic.  He thought the door would open from the inside, but he brought tools with him, just in case.  He unscrews the doorknob, figuring this will release the catch and open the door.  He places the doorknob in his pocket and pushes.  The door still does not open.

Peruggia is trapped inside the Louvre, with the world’s most famous painting, freshly-stolen.  Suddenly, he hears footsteps approaching on the stairs.

Now that I’ve got you wondering what happened to old Vincenzo, I think I’ll pause for a moment and leave you in suspense, while we talk for a minute about art crime in general.

When people think of art theft, they tend to think of stories like this one.  Individual, non-violent, idealistic gentleman thieves, stealing individual famous artworks from renowned collections, with no one really getting hurt in the process.  They think of Thomas Crown and Dr. No and Cary Grant.  There have been real crimes like that.  But the vast majority of art crime is far darker, and more serious, than most realize.

Art crime has been called the third-highest grossing criminal trade worldwide, behind only the drug and arms trades.  It has been linked to organized crime, from small local gangs to large international mafias, and it even funds terrorism.  The German magazine Der Spiegel broke the story of Mohammed Atta, one of the organizers of the September 11 attack.  Atta flew to Germany in 1999 to try to sell looted Afghani antiquities.  When asked why he wanted to sell them, he said that he wanted to buy a plane.  It seems that an early iteration of the September 11 attack would have used funds generated from selling looted antiquities to buy planes to crash into buildings.  It is not just the art that is at stake.

It is unfortunately not all that hard to steal art, as we saw in the recent Rotterdam heist, but it is hard to profit from stolen art.  Some art might be sold to unwitting buyers, but aside from a few sporadic examples, there have been almost no real-life criminal art collectors, of the sort you see in fiction and film.  Pablo Picasso is one of the few exceptions, but we’ll save his story for another time.  There are, in fact, tens of thousands of artworks reported stolen each year, 20-30,000 in Italy alone, and the beneficiaries of these thefts are often related to organized crime.  But if art can’t be sold on an open market, how can criminals profit?

When I taught a seminar in art crime at Yale in 2009, a local thief provided a useful case study.  Dennis Maluk was a heroin addict, living in New Haven.  He stole at least 39 paintings from the greater New Haven area, nothing famous but some of them worth thousands of dollars.  He traded each of them to Bruno Nestir, a local member of a criminal gang, in exchange for a day or two’s worth of heroin.  When police raided Nestir’s home, they found 39 stolen paintings, drugs packaged for street sale, unlicensed firearms, and a wad of cash.  There, in miniature, we see what happens on a larger scale to stolen art.

A larger-scale case study may be found in the 1986 theft of art from Russborough House, a country house in Ireland which has the unusual distinction of having been burgled of its art on four separate occasions, twice by the IRA.  This time it was Martin Cahill, an infamous Irish gangster about whom films have been made.  He and accomplices stole 18 works from Russborough House, including a Vermeer, a Goya, and a Gabriel Metsu.  He figured that he would retire on the proceeds, but Cahill could not find the sort of criminal art collector he expected from books and the movies.  Unable to find a buyer who did not look like a policeman in disguise, he hatched another plan.  He smuggled the Vermeer and the Goya to Antwerp, where he used them as collateral for a loan of 1 million pounds from a diamond merchant who had bought stolen gems from him in the past.  The idea was that the loan would go to buying drugs which would be sold on the street for profit.  Cahill would pay back the loan, and retrieve the paintings, which would go on to act as collateral in future such deals.  That was what was supposed to happen, but the diamond merchant got antsy.  He decided to sell the paintings himself, and he did—to a Scotland Yard undercover agent, who arrested him.  A different work also stolen by Cahill, the Gabriel Metsu, was recovered when police in Istanbul raided a deal between two organized crime groups, trading the Metsu for a shipment of drugs.  In the Cahill case, we see stolen art used as collateral and in a barter system between criminal groups.  The interconnection between drugs, arms, and stolen art is serious.  Art theft might be fun and sexy to read about, but if you are concerned about the drug and arms trade, and even terrorism, then it is something to take seriously.

In my research I have found what I believe is unique to the world of crime.  Criminals learn about art theft largely through works of fiction.  Criminals steal art regularly expecting to be able to find criminal collectors who will buy recognizable art from them.  But they rarely if ever find any such buyers.  Police use this expectation to catch criminals and recover art.  Some of the most famous art recoveries, like that of Munch’s The Scream and the recovery of the Rembrandt stolen from Stockholm in my opening story, involved undercover police posing as clichéd criminal art collectors, luring the criminals into a trap.  Fiction, therefore, tends to perpetuate misconceptions and misinform both the general public and criminals—but knowing this, police can use it to their advantage.

Now, you’re probably wondering what happened to Peruggia back in the Louvre stairway.  He was trapped inside, the doorknob in his pocket, the Mona Lisa under his arm, and footsteps fast approaching.  Peruggia’s heart thundered.  Then he saw a plumber coming up the stairs, making his morning rounds.  To the plumber, Peruggia looked like a Louvre worker who had been accidentally locked in overnight—not an unheard-of occurrence.  The plumber unlocked the door and let Peruggia out.  He never bothered to notice the Mona Lisa-shaped package that Peruggia carried under his arm.

Peruggia made his way across the Court of the Sphinx and through the Visconti exit, not encountering another security guard.  As he left the Louvre, he was spotted only by a clerk setting up shop across the street from the Louvre museum.  The clerk remembered how odd he found it that this Louvre worker threw a doorknob over his shoulder as he disappeared into early-morning Paris.

Peruggia eventually did return the Mona Lisa to Italy, smuggling it to Florence in the false bottom of a shipping trunk.  He handed it over to the director of the Uffizi Museum, and was very surprised to find himself arrested.  He thought that he would be greeted as a national hero.  But his theft, arguably the single most famous heist in history, helped make the Mona Lisa the world’s most famous painting, and colored the way the world sees art theft.

While this sort of story is sexy, we have discussed the darker side of art theft.  Whether or not you are an art lover, because of the links to organized crime and even terrorism, it is important to protect art.

It is not just the art that is at stake.

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