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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Stolen Art Watch, Art Of The Steal, Sunday Musings

The Verdict If you’re a fan of Ocean’s Eleven-style heists – capers with a good sense of humor and a high dosage of fun – The Art of the Steal is right up your alley. The characters steal the show, much like they steal some damn fine art in the movie itself.

Amherst College, FBI reopen 1975 Mead Art Museum heist investigation

  • JASON PICARD<br/>Mead Art Museum Director Elizabeth Barker, left, and Director of Security Heath Cummings are seen in front of the Pieter Lastman painting "St. John the Baptist," which was stolen from the museum in February 1975 but recovered in January 1989. 
    Mead Art Museum Director Elizabeth Barker, left, and Director of Security Heath Cummings are seen in front of the Pieter Lastman painting "St. John the Baptist," which was stolen from the museum in February 1975 but recovered in January 1989.
Two of the paintings were recovered in 1989 following a federal sting operation in Illinois, in which a notorious art thief and bank robber from Massachusetts, Myles Connor Jr., was arrested. He had offered the two paintings as collateral in a drug deal set up by undercover FBI agents.
In a 2009 book, “The Art of the Heist,” in which he details his life of crime, Connor claims he stole both those paintings from the Mead.

But the third painting — a piece by Dutch artist Jan Baptist Lambrechts that is believed to date from the early 18th century — hasn’t been seen since vanishing from the museum Feb. 8, 1975. And Connor doesn’t mention it in his book.

Now museum officials, with the FBI, have reopened the investigation for the missing painting, titled “Interior with Figures Smoking and Drinking.” Though no new information has come to light about the work, museum staff said they have no reason to believe the Lambrechts is not still in decent condition, somewhere, and they hope that by publicly announcing the renewed search they’ll prompt some new leads, including tips from the public.
“I’ve been trying to do this since I came on here,” said Heath Cummings, the Mead’s head of security, who began working at the museum in 2006. “It was basically a matter of going back, looking at all the paperwork on the case, talking to people who had been involved in it, just slowly collecting data about it.”
Cummings examined museum files, college archives, and old newspaper accounts, and he also talked to various art experts and other law enforcement agents. Then he took the information to the FBI, which agreed to take a fresh look at the case, including assigning an agent in the bureau’s Springfield office to review past information on the missing painting to see if anything had been overlooked.
Special agent Greg Comcowich, media coordinator for the bureau’s Boston office, said the FBI is looking to generate additional publicity for the case beyond the Valley and Massachusetts.
“It’s not uncommon for art to resurface years or even decades after it’s been stolen,” Comcowich said. “It can follow some strange paths.”
He said the art can sometimes wind up with people who don’t realize the value of what they have.
“Anytime we get a request like this from the public, we want to do all we can to help out,” said special agent Geoff Kelly, who oversees art theft investigations for the Boston FBI office. “And today we have better resources for tracking stolen art than we did in 1975.”
He noted, for instance, that the bureau maintains a digital national file for looted art, on which the Lambrechts painting has been listed.
Elizabeth Barker, the Mead’s director, credited Cummings with doing all the “heavy lifting” on researching the case of the missing Lambrechts painting. The museum, she added, decided bringing the case forward again and seeking public input outweighed the embarrassment of reminding anyone that the paintings had been stolen in the first place, when museum security was not as tight as it is now.
“I think it’s important that we show we’re making a real good-faith effort to try and find this painting,” Barker said. 

Grim discovery
The theft was discovered in February 1975 after state police at the Northampton barracks got an anonymous tip. They contacted Amherst College police, who tracked footprints still visible in some fresh snow to a broken window at the Mead. Inside the museum, it quickly became evident that three Dutch canvasses — all of which the museum had obtained in the previous few years — had been stripped from their frames.
Aside from the Lambrechts painting, the missing art included “The Interior of the New Church, Delft” by Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet (1611-1675) and “St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Lastman (1583-1633).
Museum officials did what they could, registering the stolen works with the Art Dealers Association of America in case someone tried to sell them, and the college overhauled the Mead’s security system. In 1982, insurance allowed the museum to purchase a replacement painting, another work by van Vliet, “Interior of Nieuwe Kerk, Delft.”
But the trail of the missing art soon went cold — until 1989, when the van Vliet and Lastman paintings were recovered during Connor’s arrest in the FBI drug sting. Both paintings were in pretty good condition, Cummings said, and were back on display in the museum that year.
However, Connor, who once stole a Rembrandt from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in broad daylight — then later used it as a bargaining chip for a reduced prison sentence — gave a new wrinkle to the Mead story in his 2009 book, in which he details his long list of crimes and prison sentences, including one for shooting a police officer.
In the book, co-written by crime novelist Jenny Siler, Connor claims he stole the van Vliet and Lastman paintings from the Mead on a whim after coming to the area with two partners to check out a South Hadley bank they were thinking of robbing. Connor, who enjoyed art and studied it in his spare time, stopped by the museum before heading to the bank.
Connor, now 71 and according to various news reports living in Blackstone, in Worcester County near the Rhode Island border, does not say specifically when he went to the Mead. But judging from the book’s timeline, his visit would appear to be in the mid 1970s, about the time the three paintings were stolen from the museum.
He writes that he didn’t care for the Mead’s atmosphere — “Small yet pretentious, with an overblown sense of itself” — but did appreciate its collection of Dutch oil paintings. Noticing one in the curator’s empty office, he stepped in for a quick look, only to have the curator reappear, irritated to find Connor there and dismissive of his inquiries about the painting, “immediately identifying me as someone of a lower caste.”
Feeling disrespected, and noticing there did not appear to be any alarm system connected to the window in his office, Connor resolved to come back that night with his partners to teach the curator a lesson. He claims the subsequent break-in, through the window of that same office, “wasn’t especially memorable” but personally very satisfying, “on par with the most daring heists of my career.”
Yet, among a number of items he claims he and his partners stole from the museum, Connor does not mention Lambrechts’ “Interior with Figures Smoking and Drinking.”
Asked if Connor had been questioned about that painting, or would be in the future, Geoff Kelly, the FBI agent, said he couldn’t comment on any specifics about the investigation but added, “Typically we will approach anyone who we believe may have knowledge about the case.”
It’s not clear what the Lambrechts painting might be worth today; Barker said that as a museum director, she’s ethically bound not to discuss the monetary value of artwork. But according to, an online service provider for the international art market, other works by Lambrechts were sold in the past two decades for the equivalent of anywhere between $22,000 and $43,400.
People get disheartened sometimes with how long it can take to recover stolen art, Kelly said, “but they have to be patient — there can be a break in a case anytime.” He cited a 1978 case in which seven paintings worth millions of dollars were stolen from a private residence in Stockbridge — the largest residential theft in state history — and all the art was finally recovered by about 2010.
“There’s always hope,” said Kelly.
Anyone who may have information relating to the theft or location of the Lambrechts painting is asked to contact the FBI at 617-742-5533 or online at

12-page list details drugs seized from apartment where stolen artifact sat for years

12-page list details drugs seized from apartment where stolen artifact sat for years

Simon Metke, 33, kept an ancient artifact worth $1.2-million on a bookshelf for two years.

EDMONTON - An RCMP officer helping in the search for a stolen $1.2 million artifact noticed a strong smell of marijuana within the south Edmonton apartment. In the first kitchen drawer he opened while looking for documents related to the Persian bas-relief sculpture, the officer found containers with what he believed to be marijuana, hash or heroin, psilocybin, and cocaine or methamphetamine inside, court documents say.
Alberta RCMP assisted Quebec RCMP’s Integrated Art Crime Investigation Team on Jan. 22 in recovering the artifact stolen from Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts in September 2011. When RCMP entered the 14th-floor suite shortly before 9 a.m., Simon Metke showed investigators where the stolen artifact was in his bedroom, an application to obtain a search warrant says.
Metke, 33, previously told the Edmonton Journal the artifact, dating from the fifth century BC, sat on an Ikea bookshelf for two years, displayed above a plastic Star Wars spaceship, flanked by crystals and a small collection of stuffed animals. He bought the sculpture from the neighbour of a friend in Montreal for $1,400.
“I’m not really happy with the way that I found out what it was, but ... I’m really honoured to have been able to look after it,” he said.
As Metke and his girlfriend Jana Lang, 25, were escorted out of the apartment and taken to RCMP headquarters, officers began searching the suite for documents related to the stolen artifact. Police sought a second search warrant for drugs and seized what they believed to be 1.072 kilograms of marijuana, 11.1 grams of hash, one gram of heroin, 64.8 grams of psilocybin, 18.1 grams of opium, LSD, “score sheets,” scales, and packaging material.
The items found are detailed in a 12-page list.
Police also seized an undetermined amount of cash in 19 bundles and numerous unidentified drugs, including a plastic margarine container with various suspected drugs inside and unknown plant matter in small plastic baggies.
“I noticed two white coffee grinders on the kitchen counter in plain view,” wrote RCMP Const. Brent Clarke in an application to obtain a search warrant. One coffee grinder contained ground-up marijuana, and a kitchen drawer Clarke opened contained small containers with various drugs, as well as rolling papers, a metal grinder and scissors.
Clarke also noticed two pieces of paper, believed to be score sheets. “Score sheets record how much the drug trafficker is selling the drugs for and the amounts. I noticed code names and prices consistent with that of a cannabis marijuana trafficker,” the document says.
Metke previously told the Journal he had been working on getting his medical marijuana licence, and that the money seized by RCMP were donations and savings to start a business teaching children about ecology.
Metke and Lang have been charged with trafficking marijuana and possession of money obtained by crime. Metke has also been charged with possession of stolen property. They are slated to appear in Edmonton provincial court on March 19.

Man charged over Edinburgh antiques theft

Shapes auction house  
Antiques worth about £100,000 were taken from Shapes auction house in December
A 53-year-old man has been charged in connection with the theft of antiques from an auction house in the west of Edinburgh.
Gordon McIntyre appeared at Edinburgh Sheriff Court charged with theft by housebreaking.
He made no plea or declaration and was remanded in custody.
Police Scotland said about £100,000 worth of items were taken from Shapes on Bankhead Medway early on 7 December, 2013.
Officers confirmed they are still attempting to trace the stolen goods and have appealed for anyone with information to contact them.
The theft was investigated as part of Operation RAC, which was established to target housebreaking and other crimes against property.
Det Insp John Kavanagh said: "Since these items were stolen during a break-in last year, officers in Edinburgh have been pursuing numerous lines of inquiry to identify those responsible.
"These inquiries, undertaken as part of Operation RAC, have culminated in an arrest, while we continue with our efforts to trace the stolen antiques.
"Anyone who believes they have information that can assist with our investigation should contact police immediately."
Kingpin’ of Wafi Mall jewellery heist held

DUBAI: Dubai Police have confirmed the news reported by Kuna news agency from Madrid that the Spanish police arrested on Feb.3 a new member of the “Pink Panther” gang. The gang had robbed jewellery worth three million euros from a shopping mall in Dubai in 2007.

According to Kuna agency, the Spanish TV news quoted the Spanish police that they had arrested a 33-year-old Serbian, Borok Leinshitesh, one of the members of the “Pink Panther” gang, who is wanted in more than 20 countries and purportedly the gang leader.

The Spanish police confirmed that Leinshitesh was arrested in the city of Alkala de Henares in Madrid, while he was driving a rented car checking out of a hotel. They said he was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by the Dubai Police.

It is mentioned that this gang consists of 200 people, and they had committed more than 210 robberies all over the world, most recent of which was in the French city of Cannes, during the Cannes Film Festival.

A security source said they had already arrested about two members of the “Pink Panther” gang after their identity was revealed by the Dubai Police for the first time in the world, and they had issued charges against them on the request of Interpol.

An official arrest warrant against the suspects was issued by the Dubai Interpol Police since committing the theft in a famous jewellery store in Wafi Mall. An extradition order has been sent to the Spanish authorities to extradite the accused to the Dubai police.

It was noted that the Dubai Police had a great role to play in detecting the case of the jewellery store theft by four suspects, including a woman.

Dubai Police also revealed the identities of these criminals.

The police confirmed that the suspects were members of a gang which was called the “Pink Panther.”

The police chased them and they were able to detect the place where they hid the jewellery a few days after the theft, and arrested one member of the gang.

Fernando de Szyszlo painting stolen from museum in Arequipa, Peru

Three paintings were taken from the Arequipa Museum of Contemporary Art, among them “Cuadro de Auvers” by Peruvian artist Fernando de Szyszlo.

Fernando de Szyszlo painting stolen from museum in Arequipa, Peru
Three painting have been stolen from the Arequipa Museum of Contemporary Art, say museum officials.
The most well-known work taken by the art thieves is the “Cuadro de Auvers” by Peruvian abstract artist Fernando de Szyszlo. The two other paintings that were taken were “Aves de totorita” by Gerardo Chavez and “Sueño de Fuego” by Venancio Shinki.
Eduardo Ugarte, director of the Arequipa Museum of Contemporary art told EFE “We’re asking for international help in distributing [images] of the paintings so they won’t be sold, as we think what we’re dealing with is an international art trafficking network, because one of the criminals had a foreign accent.”
“These three painting are very important for us,” explained the director.
EFE reports that the burglary appears to have been a well-organized operation. “They studied the routine and [knew] how to do it,” said Ugarte.
According to EFE, the paintings were cut from their frames with a razor blade. Two members of the three-person team worked to distract museum staff while the third went alone to remove the paintings from their frames. They were able to leave before museum security realized what had happened.
EFE reports that Interpol has been notified of the theft.

Theft of $1.8 million in baroque paintings a blow to Guatemalan art world

ANTIGUA, Guatemala – Two weeks ago, thieves made off with six paintings by 18th century master Tomás de Merlo from the colonial-era church of El Calvario in La Antigua. Experts are devastated by the loss.
Late on the afternoon of Feb. 7, two men entered the historic church, tied up groundskeeper Feliciano Chávez hand and foot, and, joined by accomplices, cut the six paintings from their frames, one by one.
Experts have valued the paintings at about $300,000 each, or $1.8 million total. But for Miguel Torres, an academic fellow at the Guatemalan Academy of Geography and History, “it’s impossible to assign a monetary value to any of the paintings.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Torres lamented. “The paintings are part of our history.”

Benjamin Reeves/The Tico Times
The stolen works, which depict the Passion of Christ and were commissioned after the 1717 San Miguel earthquakes to adorn the walls of El Calvario, represent a crucial component of Guatemala’s 18th century art.
In a recent story in the daily Prensa Libre, historian Haroldo Rodas called the theft “intolerable,” while art historian Guillermo Monsanto said the “heart of baroque Guatemala was stolen.”
Art theft is sadly not uncommon in Guatemala, and the Museum of Colonial Art in La Antigua has targeted before. In 2004, a large painting by Cristóbal de Villalpando was stolen and cut into pieces. A museum guard was killed in that heist. Both halves of the painting were later recovered in Mexico.
Guatemala hosts vast quantities of cultural patrimony, from ancient Mayan artifacts to the treasures of the colonial Catholic Church. Much of the Central American country’s fine art, like De Merlo’s paintings in El Calvario, originally was commissioned by the Catholic Church, and it is still largely under the church’s purview.
But the theft of the De Merlo paintings was preventable, Torres said.
“I personally recommended that [they] put in an alarm [on each painting],” Torres said. Security firms were solicited for bids on an alarm system, but in the end, “we never got the money.”
While El Calvario did have an alarm, it was only activated when the church was closed, and individual paintings were not wired.

El Calvario, Antigua, Guatemala.
Benjamin Reeves/The Tico Times
Now, finger-pointing has begun, with the Guatemalan Culture Ministry pinning the blame on the local Catholic Church. According to Eduardo Hernández, who polices the illicit traffic of cultural goods for the ministry, the paintings were stolen because of a “lack of cautiousness” and a “dearth of finances for a new alarm.”
Even Torres has admitted that many experts in the art world, including himself, were naive in thinking the large scale of the paintings would prevent their theft.
Experts say the biggest markets for stolen colonial Guatemalan art are Mexico and Spain, and according to Torres, the De Merlo paintings are likely in the hands of a private collector. Investigators have alerted Interpol and major auction houses and museums.
Meanwhile, the investigation continues, and a crime-scene squad from the Prosecutor’s Office closed the church for a day last week. Investigators also have requested polygraphs for church employees, and the government is offering a $13,000 reward for information leading to the paintings’ safe return.
Police say anyone with information should call +(502) 2239-2100.
Benjamin Reeves is a freelance journalist based in Antigua, Guatemala. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
More of the stolen paintings:

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