Spectacular Larceny

by by Kathleen Ross

It's been over a month since thieves jacked four masterpieces from the EG Bührle Foundation, an art collection outside Zurich, Switzerland. Wearing ski masks and toting pistols, two men unhooked the paintings, stuffed them into carpetbags and disappeared with art worth over $163 million. A week later, two of the four paintings were found--thanks to either dumb luck or dumb crooks. Not far from the gallery, Cezanne's Boy in the Red Waistcoat and Monet's Poppy Field at Vetheuil were tucked quietly in a car's backseat in a mental hospital's parking lot. Van Gogh's Blooming Chestnut Branches and Degas' Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter are still missing. Interpol estimates only an eight percent recovery rate for stolen paintings, so it's likely that they won't surface.

The best hope for Zurich lies in the Art Loss Register, an international online database of stolen art, antiques and collectibles. Established in 1991 by auction houses and insurance agents, ALR keeps track of all missing artifacts; buyers can search the catalogue before any purchase, forcing sellers to show proof of authenticity or legitimate provenance. ALR also offers search and recovery services to collectors. An art detective, Ingrid Blom-Baer, has been assigned to the Zurich case.

Contrary to popular mythology, there are no evil art aficionados holding cocktail parties to show their recently pinched Rembrandts. "These paintings will probably act as currency in a sort of underworld of organized crime gangs," Blom-Böer said in an interview with "They may be used in payment or exchange for money laundering purposes or in connection with drugs and weapon trafficking." Stolen paintings can also be "art-napped, " held for a ransom with the intent to blackmail insurance companies. Sometimes, when the painting is recognizable, it gets stashed in an attic until the owner gets bold enough--or bored enough--to sell it years later. Art theft for the sake of art is rare.

Grand Theft Art
When burglars tiptoed into the Mexico City National Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve in 1985, they almost tripped over the eight security guards, all of whom had fallen asleep on the floor after a merry evening of drinking. Art theft isn't usually this easy. Caper films accurately depict the careful months of necessary planning. Thieves must scope out vulnerable paintings, brainstorm how to make their move, decide a tactic and pick the right time. It's like planning a first date; maybe when Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, he wanted to take her out for espresso, not back to Italy.

Considering few thieves have been caught, their specific motives are largely unknown. In Zurich, the perpetrators may have ditched the Cézanne and the Monet because they suddenly needed to travel light. Or they may have been aiming only for the Degas and the Van Gogh. "If you follow large important auctions you know exactly what these paintings are worth, and that attracts the interest of criminals," Blom-Baer explained. "The thieves are not taking the paintings to enjoy them. They have different goals."
Someone always wants to make a profit, and since a large part of the art trade is still highly unregulated, stolen works of art often change hands for large sums. Even in the case of English sculptor Henry Moore's two-ton bronze statue Reclining Figure, which was lifted from a museum yard using a flatbed truck, money was a factor. Moore's statue, worth $5.2 million, probably wasn't sold, but rather melted down for scrap metal.

A past of plundering
There is one instance of embezzlement in the name of love: Stephane Breitwieser, an introverted French writer, stumbled across a painting, became deeply infatuated and took it right from its small gallery. From there, Breitwieser became a kleptomaniac art buff. Throughout the '90s, he exploited relaxed security, tucking canvases in his overcoat and hiding artifacts in his knapsack. His first serious museum theft was a crossbow. Over the years, he stole 232 items from 139 museums and galleries across Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland. But Breitwieser never sold any of the art. Instead, he hoarded the treasures in his bedroom in his mother's house. All the artwork was stored carefully, and he even re-framed several pieces. One painting, Francois Boucher's Sleeping Shepherd, was kept under his pillow.

After six years, Breitwieser was finally caught snatching a 16th-century bugle from a museum in Switzerland. At first, police assumed it was a one-time thing, only a petty theft. Soon, reports from around Europe against Breitwieser flooded in, revealing the intensity of his pathological enthusiasm. It took almost three weeks for the Swiss authorities to get an international search warrant, and by that time Breitwieser's mother, Marielle Stengel, had destroyed the majority of the art back in France. Although authorities believed that she was getting rid of the evidence, Stengel insisted that she was teaching her son a lesson when she shredded his favorite Boucher painting in the garbage disposal. She cut other paintings into pieces with tiny scissors and tossed classical artifacts into the nearby Rhine-Rhone canal, ruining several thousand dollars worth of art.

In 2006--long after he had served 26 months in jail--Breitwieser released a book, Confessions d'un Voleur d'Art (Confessions of an Art Thief). For Breitwieser, art theft was a fanatical pastime. Driven by love instead of money, Breitwieser may have been one of the most industrious art thieves in history. But he got caught.

Someone's gonna miss it
Most recovery stories don't end in the Breitwieser brand of tragedy. In fact, if pieces are going to show up, they'll surface over time. It just takes a while. In 1967, an Andrew Wyeth watercolor vanished from the front room of the Sears-Vincent Price Gallery--a short-lived collaboration between the department store and horror film actor--in Chicago. Thirty years later, the painting arrived at Christie's, where a researcher investigating its provenance realized it was still considered stolen.

Thirty years for a Wyeth may be nothing in comparison to the Isabella Gardener Museum theft in Boston; that attempted recovery could last for generations. During his successful career, Harold J. Smith, art investigator for Christie's and Lloyd's of London, uncovered fake Michelangelos and Picassos. It's debatable whether Harold J. Smith is best known for his appearance in the 2005 Rebecca Dreyfus documentary Stolen, his cracking of the spectacular Florida gold robbery or his signature bowler hat, eye-patch and prosthetic nose. After the Gardener Museum robbery--in which a Vermeer and three Rembrandts were taken--Smith became obsessed with the case but, sadly, made absolutely no headway. Now that he is retired, his son and grandson will continue the search.

Since its inception, the Art Loss Register has notably recovered Cezanne's Still Life With Fruit and a Jug and Picasso's Woman in White Reading a Book. ALR encourages registration on the database in order to develop an extensive catalogue, which will not only help future cases, but also reveal a chain of art buyers and sellers. As ALR grows, it could act as a significant deterrent for art thieves, upping their risk significantly.
Arguably, one preventive measure against theft would be better security. Small European galleries--like the ones Breitwieser targeted--skimp on security in favor of purchasing higher-value acquisitions. When thieves seized Munch's The Scream from the National Gallery in Olso, Norway in 1994, they made sure to leave a note: "Thanks for the poor security."

Gimme Monet for Degas
Blooming Chestnut Branches and Ludovic Lepic and his Daughters have been entered into the Art Loss Register. Blom-Baer believes that "thieves think that after the publicity dies down, no one will remember anything about this theft." She's probably right. Art heists captivate our cultural imagination, but only briefly. We like our elegant crimes committed by elegant people. In films like The Thomas Crown Affair, we cast Pierce Brosnan as our dandified bandit and shoot Renee Russo's buttocks crisp and still, like Cezanne apples. When Catherine Zeta-Jones booty-shimmied through some lasers, Entrapment raked in over $210 million. But the spectacle is fleeting and forgettable. The best hope for Zurich may lie in waiting for the paintings until some bored criminal gets an itch in his wallet.