But today...True Crime Tuesday...he takes us inside the world of art theft.
ANTHONY AMORE: Less than a month ago, two valuable paintings—one a portrait of two smiling boys by Frans Hal and the other a landscape by Jacob van Ruysdael—were stolen from a museum in Leerdam in The Netherlands. Amazingly, this crime, in which the thieves made off with a haul valued in the millions of US dollars, received barely a mention in North America. In fact, I had to use an online translation program in order to read about the theft in English. It’s safe to assume that this is at least partly due to the fact that the public is unaware of the enormity of the problem of crimes against art.
HANK: Tell us more! So this goes on all the time? What are some of the most famous cases?
Anthony Amore: Art theft happens much more than one may think. The trafficking of illicit art is a multi-billion dollar “industry” and includes everything from stolen paintings to Egyptian artifacts to rare items from our nation’s history. It ranges from thefts of antique family heirlooms taken from private homes to thefts from internationally known museums, such as the infamous 1990 theft of 13 priceless items from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. That art crime, still unsolved, ranks as the largest property theft in recorded history.
Anthony Amore: Unfortunately, crimes against important cultural property still happen every day. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement and INTERPOL, Europe is a hotbed for stolen art and antiquities. This is true in around the world, and the United States is no different. Art theft is so prevalent in America that in 2004 the Federal Bureau of Investigation formed an Art Crime Team to investigate such losses. However, here in the United States, little emphasis is put on the recovery of lost art at the state and local levels of law enforcement.
The good news is that, at least when it comes to stolen masterpieces, the recovery rate is fairly good. That’s because highly recognizable art is very difficult to move. Thieves who see enormous dollar values often commit crimes of opportunity. But as retired FBI agent Robert Wittman has noted, the true art of art theft is in the moving of the goods, not the heist itself. So, while the bad guys usually prevail when it comes to lesser known works, there is hope for better known items. This is just one of the reasons that I am hopeful for a recovery of the stolen Gardner art.
Stealing Rembrandts makes three things abundantly clear: 1) art is not stolen by swashbuckling, debonair thieves on behalf of nefarious billionaires. It is stolen by common crooks, often as a crime of opportunity; 2) stealing high-value art by well-known artists is a fool’s errand because such works are nearly impossible to sell; and 3) prevention against the theft of our priceless cultural treasures, not just the recovery of stolen art, is vitally important. Despite these truths, art remains an attractive target for criminals who are romanced by astronomical values attributed to master works.
HANK: Why did you pick Rembrandt thefts? Is he the most-stolen artist ever?
Anthony Amore: We chose Rembrandt for several reasons. Chief among them was the fact that in my work pursuing the stolen Gardner Rembrandts, I spent considerable time examining how other theft of the great master took place. In seeking out as much information on art crime as I could, I was surprised to see just how often works by Rembrandt have been stolen. Thus, the topic of our book was born. Tom Mashberg, himself no stranger to the pursuit of stolen art, brought his talents for investigative journalism to the project, and we created what we feel is a book that will help the cause of art security for decades to come.History has proven that, once stolen, thieves have very little success monetizing their booty. Like many of us, they believe the version of life they see on the Hollywood screen, which is based entirely on fantasy, not reality. So, despite the folly of it all, criminals will likely always target art. And that means we have to remain vigilant in our efforts to protect it. An essential part of that is knowing who the culprits are, and who they are not.
One of the more entertaining parts of the book Tom and I wrote deals with the genesis of the myth of “Dr. No.” We examine the origins of the public’s fallacious yet widespread belief that stolen masterpieces now hang on the walls of some master crime figure’s underground lair, there for him to enjoy alone with his brandy snifter. In fact, an investigator is far more likely to find a stolen masterpiece wrapped in a blanket in a storage facility, attic, or basement than he is to find it in a mansion hanging by a fireplace. This is the reality of art theft, and it’s nothing like it is on the big screen.Hopefully, in some measure, Stealing Rembrandts will smash that myth, helping law enforcement to better identify art thieves and fences, while also showing art collectors (including museums and galleries) who it is they must defend themselves against.
Until art is better protected, and the enemy more clearly understood, our cultural treasures will continue to fall victim to thieves with little regard for history, beauty, or the best achievements of their fellow man.
Anthony Amore is an art security expert and the co-author, with Tom Mashberg, of Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, published by Palgrave MacMillan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org