Picasso accused of stealing the Mona Lisa, how a Dutch painter fooled the Nazi high command, and heists you’d only expect in Hollywood. Get to know the individuals who specialised in the fine art of theft.
The case of Han van Meegeren
Picture this, you’re a good enough painter to make people believe they’ve discovered an unheard-of Vermeer, but you’re being rejected by the critics of your time because your paintings are too old school. So, what do you do? Pursue a life of crime and become a national hero, what else!
Van Meegeren put his talent to use as a prolific forger, but his greatest claim to fame is fooling the highest-ranking Nazi officer, Herman Göring, into trading 137 original pieces for a false Vermeer, which Göring treated as one of his most precious finds.
Göring’s greed didn’t stop there, though. Along with the Nazi’s seizure of property and land, there was also the mass looting of art by the Kunstschutz, although not just any kind would do. The Nazis, especially Hitler, eschewed modernity.
A reject of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, Hitler in turn rejected the oeuvre of the time and stripped German museums of Avant-garde pieces. This wasn’t before showcasing them in 1937 at the Degenerate Art Exhibition, though. Ironically, this modern art exhibit, which featured Jewish work, saw twice the number of visitors than the less popular Great German Art Exhibition which was on display at the same time.
Of the works lost to Nazi looting during the war, there’s Van Gogh’s The Painter on His Way to Work and Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man. The efforts of the Monuments Men saved a great deal, although some still slipped through the cracks – Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Nazi art dealer, was able to hold onto a huge private collection of ‘degenerate art’ he had accrued during the period of war.
But not everyone can steal in plain sight.
Art theft – not as glamorous as you think
When we think of art theft, we may think of a cat burglar clad in black, blowing a cloud of chalk from their palm to reveal lasers they’ll have to contort their way through. But the most expensive art heist in history was pulled off with a wax mustache and a Dodge Daytona.
While the Boston Irish spent St. Patrick’s Day 1990 drinking the night away, two thieves waited outside the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. At 01:24 they entered the premises disguised as police officers responding to a fake disturbance. After handcuffing museum security in the cellar, they proceeded to pull off the most costly heist in art history.
The score: 13 pieces, worth a combined total of $500 million, including Rembrandt’s only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Vermeer’s The Concert, and works by Manet and Degas. Nearly 30 years later and with the offer of $10 million in return for tips about the masterpieces’ whereabouts, they still remain missing. Fortunately, you can still find the works of Dutch masters in the Rijksmuseum.
Does theft elevate the artwork?
You can’t talk about stolen art and not mention the Mona Lisa. If you ask someone to name a famous painting, most of them are going to go for Da Vinci’s portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, but prior to 1911 and the nationwide manhunt for the stolen smile, Da Vinci’s portrait wasn’t all that famous. Some might argue her burglary is why she’s so damn famous – and also why she’s been valued at roughly $830 million.
One of the first suspects in the theft was, believe it or not, Picasso. However, as the investigation developed, it turned out the thief was hardcore Italian patriot, Vincenzo Peruggia, who thought the painting belonged in an Italian museum. In a way, Peruggia succeeded – after hiding the Mona Lisa for two years he was able to get it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where it sat on show for a little over two weeks before being brought back to the Louvre.
A victimless crime?
So you’ve stolen a masterpiece, now what? It’s one thing to steal art, it’s another to sell valuable art that authorities are actively on the lookout for. More often than not, the art shows up in a distant relative’s cousin’s basement with no proof of profit to show for the thief’s effort.
In Manchester, a stolen Picasso and Van Gogh reappeared the night after they were stolen in a public toilet roughly 200 meters from the gallery with an insult about the Whitworth Art Gallery’s security.
Is it just kleptomania to the nth degree? Frenchman, Stephane Breitwieser, who stole 238 pieces over the course of six years – an average of one treasured antiquity every 15 days – did nothing with his finds other than keep them locked up in a dark room at his mother’s house, smug in the knowledge that he sat on his treasure like some cheese-and-wine-stuffed Smaug.
The art world and money laundering
You could always just buy a piece of art, and depending on where the money came from…well let’s just say it’s not stealing, but it sure ain’t legal.
Auction houses and anonymity go together like PB&J, so what better way to clean your dirty money than by buying a statement piece? Hide your assets by buying a Picasso! Auction houses tend not to look into the seller, and they’re happy to keep the anonymity of the buyer.
Sure, it can be risky, you could invest your dirty money in the flavor of the week – but what’s in vogue can change on a whim, causing your investment to depreciate. Do you think a Van Gogh is going out of style anytime soon?. Sell it again when the heat is off, and, voila, clean cash.
It’s undeniable that art theft is extremely profitable for certain groups and makes for a great story. But the cultural loss of stolen artworks is immeasurable. Many non-Western societies have suffered huge gaps in their cultural knowledge due to precious artworks and relics being plundered by colonists. Imagine a world without Starry Night or Guernica. Take some time to visit museums close to you and soak up as much art as you can – and inquire about the museum’s security measures!