Art thieves make terrible businessmen

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Serbian police guard the stolen “The Boy in the Red Vest” painting by French impressionist Paul Cezanne, in Belgrade.
Serbian police guard the stolen “The Boy in the Red Vest” painting by French impressionist Paul Cezanne, in Belgrade.
Image: AP Photo / Darko Vojinovic

Dutch police are reporting that seven paintings, including works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse, were stolen today in a 3 a.m. burglary at the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. The details are still sketchy, but the Associated Press says the masterworks are potentially worth hundreds-of-millions of Euros.

To the museum, anyway. For the crooks themselves, the loot might well turn out to be worthless. According to Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s art crime team and author of the memoir Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, it’s nearly impossible for thieves to sell famous pieces of art, even on the black market. I talked to Wittman today about why yanking a Picasso is such a bad business plan, his investigations into art capers around the world, and why cheap paintings might be more valuable for a crook. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re a thief who’s stolen a fabulously valuable masterpiece. How do you sell it?

I can’t make a blanket statement. But what I can say is, after 20 years of doing these investigations for the FBI, there is a general pattern. And the general pattern is that the criminals who do these jobs, these heists, are good thieves, but they’re terrible businessmen. That’s what it comes down to.

They read in the newspaper about about the growing value of paintings and the new records that are set every year by Cézannes and Picassos, and then they think that they can get a payday by going out and doing a heist. What they don’t understand is that the value of art is dependent on three things: authenticity, provenance — the history of the art — and legal title. Those are the things that really do create the value. I mean, let’s face it, an artwork is basically a piece of canvass with some paint on it. So whenever you talk about these paintings, it’s a matter of authenticity and provenance and legal title. And if you don’t have one of those three things, you don’t have value.

So it’s tough to sell a painting when you can’t prove where it came from.

And also legal title. If you steal it, you obviously don’t have legal title. So unless a criminal is stealing the painting because he loves it, to put it on his wall — which in this case I sincerely doubt. You’re not going to steal a Matisse and a Picasso and a couple of Monets. They don’t go together. So unless you’re stealing it just to admire, their attempts to sell it are going to end in failure.

But these are extremely difficult heists, right? How could they go into this kind of thing without a plan for selling it?

You say these are extremely difficult heists. Yes, there have been some. I mean I did one investigation of a $35 million heist in Stockholm, Sweden. The thieves went in with machine guns. They put everybody on the floor in broad daylight. They stole three paintings. Two by Renoir, and a Rembrandt self-portrait. Then they set off two car bombs to stop the police and made their getaway on a high-speed boat. Now, that’s well thought out. That specific crime is well thought out. They did a “good” job when it came to stealing the items and getting away. But within the next five years, we recovered all three paintings. The Rembrandt, which was worth $35 million, we got back in an undercover operation in Copenhagen, Denmark, where I went in as a dealer for the “Russian mob,” and did a sting on it to buy the piece back. Again, in that situation, they really thought out the crime. But in the end, they had nobody to sell it to.

That’s just amazing to me. We’re talking about the most important part of the crime!

Absolutely. Another operation I was involved in, it was the largest heist in Spanish history, involving 17 paintings worth $65 million. They were stolen in Madrid. It was a private person’s apartment. They went into the apartment, knocked out the alarm systems as well as the guards, took the paintings, and for the next year tried to sell them. Again, we did an undercover operation in Madrid where we met with the thieves and were able to do a sting operation and recovered the 17 paintings. They had no place to sell them.

So who are these guys? Who is your average art thief?

There’s three types of criminals that are involved in art or cultural property heists. There’s a person who’s the opportunist. He sees a vulnerability. That would include your armed robbers and people who go in and do burglaries. They think there’s a vulnerability they can take advantage of. That would be what I would classify these individuals as last night. The last super heist involving artwork was in June of 2010 at the museum of modern art in Paris, and in that heist, five pieces were stolen valued about about $123 million. And there, the museum had not fixed their alarms, so they had some problems with the alarm, and their cameras were being replaced and they were not operational. And so the individuals went in in the middle of the night, they basically took out a window, went in through the window, and brazenly took 5 paintings.

And then have the secondary types that I call the experts. Those are the insiders. At the FBI, we did a study in 2000, where we found that 88 to 90 percent of museum heists have some insider component. That could be curator, it could be a maintenance man who works there. It could be an expert who goes in and tries to steal while he’s studying the collection.

The third is a shop lifter. The place is open, and they just stealthily grab a piece and sneak out with it. Those thefts happen at the small historical societies and places of that ilk.

Someone has to have to managed to sell a stolen painting at some point. How do they do it?

Here’s the story on selling stolen art. Paintings that are stolen like last night, those pieces that were taken out of the Kuhnsthal museum, are not going to get sold on any kind of market, whether it’s a black market or any kind of market. They’re going to get recovered. But what happens with pieces that are worth much less — let’s say the $10,000 and less market, pieces that aren’t well known — is a burglar goes into a home and steals a $5,000 painting. That can be sold in a flea market, that can be sold on what they call the secondary art market, because it’s not well known. And that’s the vast majority of art heists. It’s not these once a year museum thefts. It’s burglaries around the world. And that’s the major part of the art theft business and the collectibles business.

Even the smaller works of art have no value if they have no provenance, authenticity, or legal title. But when you talk about pieces that are under that amount, people don’t do the due diligence. When people go in and pay $5 million for a Cézannes, they’re going to do the due diligence to make sure everything is right. If a piece is $300 at a flea market, it’s not done.

Let’s change topics a little. Who in your opinion is the greatest art thief to have ever lived? Was there anybody who really was the best until they got caught?

[Laughs.] I’d say that whoever got caught wasn’t very good. I can’t say there really was a greatest art criminal. I would say there have been some excellent robberies. When I say excellent, I mean well thought out. One of the most intricate was that Stockholm theft with the boat. I think the heist that occurred at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum with the two individuals dressed as Boston police officers. We’ve never recovered any of the paintings. It’s been 22 years and it still remains largest art heist in history. $500 million worth of paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. None of those 13 paintings have ever come back to market.

Since they’ve never been found, is there a chance that some of those were sold on the black market?

I don’t think that they were sold. I think that they’re stored. And the reason I say that is towards the end of my career in 2008, I was undercover on an investigation involving Miami, Madrid, Barcelona and Paris. And we identified a group in Marseilles that had 75 paintings that they had stolen from all around Europe, and they wanted to sell them. And none of them had been sold. These were obviously paintings that had been stolen from many different heists. And nobody had made any money on them.

This originally appeared on The Atlantic. Also on our sister site:

Why you can’t run America like a business

JFK’s absurd doodles from meeting during the height of the Cuban missile crisis

Stock market performs better under Democrats