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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Art Theft Reflects World Of Avarice !!

Toronto is ideally situated to harbour art thieves, so how do we prevent this from happening?

By David Chilton

Given Toronto’s climb to the upper reaches of regularly appearing lists of the fastest-growing this or the most-expensive that, it may seem Hogtown has come of age in the market for stolen art, too. It hasn’t, at least as far as anyone can tell, but that may soon change.

Any such change, though, will require a far more systematic approach to dealing with art theft. Police, dealers and collectors will have to collaborate to prevent a small industry here becoming larger. It will mean collecting stats, forming an art theft squad and, most of all, speaking out loud about a practice still not taken as seriously as it should be.

Toronto remains a smaller player in the $6-billion a year trade in stolen cultural property, even though there’s been a ramp-up in thefts in recent years. The latest was two weeks ago when five Group of Seven paintings and six other works with a total worth of almost $400,000 disappeared from a midtown gallery, although robberies began with the 2004 heist of ivory carvings worth $1.5-million from the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Of course, these are the spectacular thefts that make the news. Others don’t, for a variety of reasons, one of them being that most thefts are from private residences, such as the spate of burglaries in posh Lawrence Park late last year. It’s unlikely a householder would contact the media because his Jack Shadbolt painting has been stolen, although the police may. Similarly, about 85% of the thefts from museums are inside jobs, so curators may just want to get the art back then quietly fire the employee. As a result, under-reporting appears to be the norm. Add to this the fact Toronto Police and the RCMP’s Toronto detachment don’t have art theft squads.

Joshua Knelman, who’s written and researched extensively on art theft, says asking how much has been stolen in the city is essential to understanding the depth and scope of the problem and so devising strategies to counter it. Unfortunately, no one seems to have an answer. Once in a while, a blockbuster theft is reported, Knelman says, but asking how many times a year a Toronto gallery is robbed or how many times a year a stolen painting is reported to the police is difficult to know because such statistics aren’t collected systematically.

“In terms of basic information, we don’t have enough of it. I know from doing cursory visits to galleries around the GTA … if it’s a smaller gallery and there’s not very many people around, I’ll ask: ‘I’ve been writing a book on art theft and I’m wondering if you’ve had any experience of that.’ More often than not the answer has been ‘yes.’ ”

Bonnie Czegledi, a Toronto artist and lawyer who has made the art field her legal specialty, says there’s a surprising amount of legitimate art trading that goes on here. “We have major museums, major galleries, several art gallery districts, great communities of artists, very principled dealers and collectors. And, the big auction houses are here. There is a lot of trade, and with that comes the not-nice element.” That includes organized crime, and there’s no reason to think Toronto is excluded from it, Czegledi says.

These gangs may not be the traditional mafias running the traditional rackets, but they’re not the debonair chaps of fiction, either. Mark Durney, business and admissions director for the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art’s MA program in New York, says there are some thieves who are “art-motivated,” but most are interested in profit. Even Vincenzo Perugia, convicted of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre 100 years ago this August, thought he could make money off the painting before switching tactics and claiming to be an Italian patriot.

All observers concede profit-oriented thieves could be anyone. Knelman won’t say who would be among the more likely suspects, although he warns against “knockers,” using the British word for an accomplice who walks up to a house and knocks on the front door hoping to win a glimpse inside. Czegledi is less circumspect, mentioning caregivers, gardeners and construction workers as the type of service providers who have easy access to private homes and thus opportunities to size up what’s on the wall.

And once a painting is stolen, what then? Where in Toronto does the thief sell his booty? That depends on his smarts. “Often the thieves don’t have the social or marketing skills to sell what they’ve stolen,” Durney says. Brains aren’t something Antonio Arch credits Toronto art thieves as having. “Only an imbecile would steal in this city,” says Arch, a consultant and dealer at Arch + Company Fine Arts in Toronto and Grand Cayman. For one thing, the market’s still too small to provide much cover, but he acknowledges hard economic times may drive some to crime.

It may be that stolen art can’t be fenced here, but that doesn’t mean the city is without its advantages for the dishonest. Toronto’s not far from New York City, a huge venue for art and the impressive money that chases it, says Knelman, whose book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art (D&M Publishers) is out in September. Durney has a similar point of view. He compares Canada with Spain when it comes to shifting art. They both sit on the edge of massive markets with largely open borders and so make trafficking relatively easy and attractive. “Once a thief passes [a work] on, the trail gets a little more complex,” Knelman explains. Durney would agree. He conducted research on a private international database of 115,000 art objects stolen between 2000 and 2009. The recovery rate was just 1.9%.

The Art of the Steal - From Leonardo da Vinci to Picasso

Stories and history behind art theft

On the 4th of July – the country had a big birthday bash. The next day, somebody decided to celebrate by walking into a gallery in downtown San Francisco and stealing a Picasso drawing worth over a quarter of a million dollars.

Sketches by Picasso have been stolen before in California.

In 1967, the Summer of Love, pieces by him and sculptor Henry Moore, valued at $200,000, were stolen while on display from a travelling exhibit the University of Michigan put on. They were found at a California auction house a few years later.

The same year these sketches were discovered, thieves stole seven paintings from an art gallery on Madison Avenue. There were works by Monet, Pissarro, Cassatt, and Rouault. They were valued at half a million dollars, and art dealer Stephen Hahn was discussing art theft with other dealers at the time this theft occurred from his gallery.

In the centennial year of 1976 – more Picasso’s were stolen in France. The stolen items include drawings and 118 paintings from an exhibition at the Palais des Papes in Avignon.

With this recent Picasso theft, cameras had video of him walking to a waiting cab, and when police raided the home of Mark Lugo – they found a Picasso drawing that was also stolen from a New York hotel – valued at $350,000 – as well as five other valuable paintings. Lugo was a sommelier and was charged with stealing $6,000 worth of wine for a store in April. His attorney claims he has “psychological issues.”

Those “issues” don’t have him stealing Charles Shaw from Trader Joe’s, but bottles of wine worth thousands each.

One expert on a news program said that if there were no video cameras, the burglar never would’ve been caught. I called a local company, Guardian Commercial Lock Service, to ask if video cameras were the best thing a gallery could use.

Jonathan Costa, one of the owners, said “The best way a business would be able to protect their merchandise at night would be to lock it up in vaults. It doesn't matter how well they have the art bolted to the walls. Everybody has heard of cases where the canvas is just cut right out of the frame and rolled up and taken out. We've installed vaults that jewelers put their items in overnight. Obviously you'd need a bigger vault for paintings, but they make bigger vaults. They have some the size of walk-in closets. With the smash-and-grab type of thefts, everything comes down to time. That could work in the burglars favor or against them. If it's going to take a thief eight hours to drill into a vault, they wouldn't spend the time doing it. If they're smashing a window or something to get in, alarms are going off and they don't have a lot of time. Basically, vaults are the best bet when it comes to protecting things.”

One of the earliest, well-known theft cases occurred in 1911. The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre by an employee. He was caught a few years later.

It always helps when a distraction nearby can help the criminals ply their trade.

On December 31, 1999, during the fireworks celebration for the millennium, a thief broke into the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. They got away with a Cezanne landscape that was valued at close to $10 million. The description of the piece says it’s an important work because it illustrated the transition from early to mature Cezanne painting.

In 2003, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Benvenuto Cellini’s Saliera was stolen with the help of a scaffolding that covered the area due to reconstruction. Austrian police recovered it three years later.

At the time it was recovered, over in Rio de Janeiro, a blocked view was used again for a theft from the Museu da Chacara do Ceu. A carnival parade was passing by the museum when they made their break in, and they disappeared in the crowd. The paintings haven’t been recovered, and they include a Salvador Dali, Picasso, Matisse, and Monet.

Local art appraiser Van Northrup was a long time San Diegan, who now resides in Texas. He’s semi-retired, but still works on many cases and often appears in court on art related matters. He told that “Stolen art is number two behind drugs, as the biggest illicit crime.”

I asked him about the security art galleries have, like the one recently broken into in San Francisco.

“You’d be appalled at the lack of security in other countries. There is a less security than here. I’m not talking about the Louvre, but other regional museums. The security is so lax.

A lot of times with the thefts in Europe, the pieces are just cut right out of the frames. Other times the thief will go into a museum and rip the thing off the wall.

Security might be better here, but in the galleries you often have kiddos working there. These people aren’t security experts, and if you don’t have a camera, it’ll be hard to find the person. That’s the only reason they caught the guy that took the Picasso recently.”

A few other Picasso’s have been stolen in the history of art thefts.

In 2006, at around 4:00 p.m., four works of art (including a Picasso, Matisse, Monet, and Dali) were stolen from the Museu Chacara do Ceu in Rio de Janeiro by four armed men. No estimates were made on their value, but I’m guessing easily $100 million.

One of the quicker robberies took only three minutes the following year at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil. Three men broke in at 5:00 a.m and got a Picasso and Candido Portinari, valued at $55 million. Brazilian police recovered them a year later.

Northrup said security is worse in other countries, but I’m not sure what kind of security could’ve stopped the biggest art theft in Canada.

In 1972, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was invaded by armed thieves. They got jewelry along with their 18 paintings, which included works by Delacroix, Gainsborough, and Rembrandt. None of this stuff has popped up yet, and the Rembrandt landscape is probably worth $25 million today.

In 1985 in Paris at the Mussee Marmottan Monet – it was day time when five masked gunmen stole nine paintings, including Monet’s, and a Morisot and Renoir. A tip led to the arrest of a Yakuza gangster in Japan, and two paintings stolen from another museum in France in 1984 were recovered.

When I mentioned to Northrup that it would be odd to steal a painting worth millions when it would be hard to sell because it’s well know, he laughed.

“A lot of art thefts are done by people that hire others to steal it for them,” he explained. “They don’t plan on selling it anywhere. There are lots of strange folks out there that just don’t want to pay for it, but would rather steal. That’s why a gallery or museum might be hit, and only a few specific pieces are stolen.”

Somebody must’ve wanted the White Duck by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. It was stolen in 1990 from the Marquess of Cholmondeley collection at Houghton Hall. It’s never turned up.

Northrup told me art crimes are worse in other countries, but the largest art heist in history occurred in Boston in 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. There were 13 pieces, at the time worth $300 million, prompting a $5,000,000 reward for information (it still hasn’t been claimed).

The stolen loot included Vermeer’s The Concert – the most valuable painting ever stolen, two Rembrandt’s (including his only seascape – The Storm on the Sea of Galilee), a Manet, five drawings by Edgar Degas, and a Rembrandt self-portrait etching. This case currently resides on the FBI’s top 10 art crimes list.

On the Federal Bureau of Investigations website, they state:

Art and cultural property crime—which includes theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking across state and international lines—is a looming criminal enterprise with estimated losses running as high as $6 billion annually.To recover these precious pieces—and to bring these criminals to justice—the FBI has a dedicated Art Crime Team of 13 special agents, supported by three special trial attorneys for prosecutions. And it runs the National Stolen Art File, a computerized index of reported stolen art and cultural properties for the use of law enforcement agencies across the world.Please note: U.S. persons and organizations requiring access to the National Stolen Art File should contact their closest FBI Field Office; international organizations should contact their closest FBI Legal Attaché Office. The FBI has a section devoted to art crime.

In their top ten, they have an incident from 2002 listed. Two thieves used a ladder to climb to the roof and break in to the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In a couple minutes they stole two Van Gogh’s valued at $30 million. Dutch police convicted two men in 2003, but they were unable to recover the paintings. A message on the website tells you where to contact if you have information on it.

Northrup told an interesting story with a case involving the FBI he was involved in.

“I was appraising art work for the Boy Scouts in Dallas. They have every Boys Life cover that Norman Rockwell did, accept for the first three. I’ve seen them all. I was told initially, that the first three were in Bogota, Colombia. That wasn’t the case. The FBI somehow, some way, found these three Rockwell paintings, and they didn’t get back to the Boy Scouts. The whole deal is kind of confusing, but the printer that hired Rockwell to paint these covers, ended up keeping them. His son eventually took over and didn’t want them, so he gave them to the Boy Scouts. They ended up on the market, and stolen from the United States.”

At this point, Northrup gives a lengthy explanation about the agreement countries have to return stolen art, whether it’s art that Nazi’s stole from Jews, and even historic pieces going back hundreds and hundreds of years.

He finally got back around the Boys Life covers and said “It was after World War I, around 1921, when they were stolen. The FBI found them just last year. They ended up going back to the estate.”

There’s also the very rare occasion were stolen paintings can result in a profit for the gallery owner.

In 1994, three paintings were stolen from a gallery in Germany. Two of the paintings belonged to the Tate Gallery in London. Four years after the theft, Tate came up with a plan. He’d secretly buyback the paintings from the thieves. This resulted in a profit of several million pounds for Tate because of previous insurance payments.

Perhaps that story gave an idea to an ophthalmologist in L.A. named Steven Cooperman. In 1999, he arranged for a Picasso and Monet to be stolen from his home. He hoped to collect $17.5 million from the insurance. Instead, he was convicted of insurance fraud.

It’s baffling as to why he didn’t just auction the paintings off, as with artists of that caliber, they’d surely sell and they always appreciate in value.

I ask Northrup how insurance companies pay and a few of the weirder stories he’s been involved with.

“There was a banker in San Palo, Brazil that was embezzling money. He put it all into art work that he sent to the United States. He was going to leave the country and live off the sale of the art work. He’s now serving 28 years in prison in San Palo, but the stuff is here. We [America] have an agreement with Latin America – that primarily involves pre-Columbian art. And if the art work travels outside of Latin America into the U.S., the FBI can seize it from the person here, and it’ll be returned. So, this poor guy in L.A. buys this painting, and the FBI shows up and takes it. They had an arrest warrant for the painting. The guy has it insured, and the insurance adjuster called me. I went out to LA and we were trying to sort the whole thing out. The worst part for this guy is, insurance won’t pay for stolen goods. If the piece was stolen, they claim the title can’t be legally passed, and you just lose the piece.”

I asked the artist of the painting, and Northrup doesn’t give it up. I ask if it’s someone we’ve heard of and he says “Oh yeah!”

Steven Spielberg had a much publicized story, but he was a little luckier than the guy in L.A. It also involved a Norman Rockwell.

The painting, Russian Schoolroom, was stolen more than 30 years ago from a gallery in Clayton, Mo., during a night time heist in 1973.

Spielberg bought it from an art dealer in 1989, the same time the FBI’s Art Crime Team put it on their list of stolen paintings. Spielberg’s staff alerted the FBI when they noticed the painting on a list of stolen art years later.

The painting was worth 20k when it was stolen, and about $700,000 today.

Spielberg is a trustee on the board of the Norman Rockwell Museum, and a collector of Rockwell pieces.

Perhaps that’s why the FBI allowed Spielberg to keep the painting until it was determined who owned it.

Last year, the dealer that sold him the paitning (Judy Goffman Cutler) was exonerated, as she’s a well-known specialist who bought the piece at an auction in New Orleans.

The plot thickens even more than a Spielberg movie, when three years ago Las Vegas art dealer Jack Solomon sued, claiming ownership. Cutler stepped in place of Spielberg at the trial, but transferring the title of another Rockwell painting to him in exchange for ownership of the Russian Schoolroom. A judge determined that Solomon already profited from an insurance claim for the stolen artwork and knew of the painting being sold in New Orleans. In fact, the auction house had given him part of the sale proceeds in 1988.

In 1946, three paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe were stolen. They were being displayed at the Alfred Stieglitz Gallery (he was her husband).

O’Keeffe found the paintings decades later, when they were purchased by the Princeton Gallery of Fine Arts for $35,000 in 1975. She sued the museum for their return. The problem O’Keeffe ran into is that there’s a six-year statute of limitations on art theft, although a state appellate court did rule in her favor four years later.

Northrup told us, “One of my friends, an art dealer in New York, had a show of lithographs of Joan Miro. A guy came in with a 3-piece suit, clean shaven. He pulled out a gun and stole the artwork. He was hired to do it, and new exactly what he was going to get. He didn’t steal anything else. Theft of art all depends on the motivation of the person.”

Sometimes pieces are stolen and ransom notes are sent for their return (that’s called “artnapping”).

The most famous incident of that involved Munch’s famous The Scream. In 1994, it was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. It was recovered later in the year. (Another version of The Scream, a painting Munch did several versions of, was stolen 10 years later).

The National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, had a bizarre robbery in 2000. You see, the three armed bandits had to flee using a boat that was moored in front of the museum.

A year after the crime, police recovered one of the two Renoirs stolen and in 2005, they got the second in Los Angeles. Later that same year, the Rembrandt – the last of the paintings original stolen – was recovered during a sting operation in a hotel in Copenhagen.

During the Caylee Anthony trial recently, we all saw the lengths parents sometimes go through for their kids.

Well, after Stephane Breitwieser was arrested and admitted to stealing 238 artworks from museums travelling around Europe, he was given a 26-month prison sentence. His mother, Mireille Stengel, thought she’d try to help him out by destroying evidence. In doing that, she chopped up over 60 paintings, including many masterpieces.

There have been a few really big heists the last few years.

In 2008, four paintings were stolen from the Foundation E.G. Buhrle in Surich, Switzerland. These major impressionist pieces included a Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, and Cezanne. They are valued at over $160 million. Later that year, the Van Gogh and Monet were discovered in a car that was in the parking lot of a nearby hospital.

That same year there were two big art heists in Sao Paulo. In one, three armed men broke into the Pinacoteca do Estado Museum with a crowbar and carjack at around 5:00 a.m. They stole a few Picasso’s, an Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, and Lasar Segall.

Last year at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, employees arrived to find that five paintings had been stolen that night. Missing were a Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani, and Leger. They were valued at over $120 million.

A woman that runs a gallery in La Jolla (who didn’t want to be named), said “People always give you advice on what you should do to prevent crime. It doesn’t make financial sense to have four security guards standing in such a small space, or some of the other crazy suggestions I’ve heard. We have security systems in place for when the gallery is closed after hours. I don’t want to get into specifics of what we have exactly, but I’m guessing if somebody cases any place long enough, they’ll be able to figure out some of the things that you have going. It’s a lot easier for us having a gallery that is always here, in a building we lease. The most common cases I’ve heard of with art thefts involve touring pieces. They’re on display in various cities, sometimes in places that aren’t designed for fine art or that people can better prepare to break into. The security can be compromised also, when lots of various employees – from who knows what companies are janitorial services -- are going in and out of the museum. We know everybody that comes in here.”

On July 15th, a judge threw a surprisingly high bail amount at the thief who stole the Picasso. It was $5 million.

Mark Lugo’s attorney said he believes “the overhyped media aspect of the case” is the reason the bail is so high. “There are murder cases in this city where the bail isn’t set at $5 million,” he told the judge. The judge responded that the brazen nature indicates Lugo poses a threat to the safety of businesses in San Francisco.

And these stories of art theft didn’t even get into the forged art work. Comedian Steve Martin found out a few months ago how frustrating that can be.

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