Last week the world was stunned by the discovery in a Munich apartment of more than 1,400 works of art together worth an estimated $1.3bn. Stored alongside mouldering cereal packets and old cartons of juice, many of the paintings, including unknown masterpieces by Chagall and Matisse, as well as works by Picasso, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, had been plundered from Jewish families by the Nazis before and during World War II.

“It’s the biggest single find of Holocaust pictures that there’s been for years,” Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of missing art, told Britain’s The Sunday Times. “But it’s still a tiny fraction of the total number of pictures that we’re looking for.” According to one estimate reported in The New York Times earlier this year, the Nazis looted around 100,000 objects, which would collectively be worth in the region of $10bn today. The whereabouts of most of these artworks remains unknown.

The state-sponsored plundering of cultural trophies by the Nazis during the ‘30s and ‘40s was one of the greatest art crimes ever committed. But art crime takes many forms, from faking the provenance of paintings, to swiping Old Masters from dusty country houses, to trafficking illicit antiquities. To find out more, I attended a symposium convened by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last week.

Unlike the history of Nazi-looted art, which triggers public disgust, one type of art crime can engender quiet admiration: the perfectly executed heist of a masterpiece from a museum. In part fuelled by Hollywood thrillers such as The Thomas Crown Affair, in which Pierce Brosnan plays a billionaire aesthete who masterminds the removal of a celebrated Monet from the walls of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Spectacular and daring art heists often attract a kind of glamour.

Over the years, there have been many such robberies, from the loss of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London in 1961, to the disappearance of a Rembrandt from the Dulwich Picture Gallery four times between 1966 and 1983 (earning the painting the dubious record of the world’s most stolen work of art), to the devastating theft of 13 objects collectively valued at more than $500m, including paintings by Rembrandt and Manet as well as Vermeer’s The Concert, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. As recently as 2010, a thief stole five paintings by Braque, Léger, Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso, together worth at least an estimated $123m, from the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. Like the haul from Boston, they are still missing.

Sandy Nairne is the director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, who was responsible for an eight-year undercover campaign to recover two important late paintings by JMW Turner stolen while on loan from the Tate Gallery to an exhibition in Frankfurt in 1994. He estimates that the international market for stolen art and antiquities is worth as much as $5bn annually. In Art Theft, Nairne’s excellent account of the recovery of the stolen Turners, he writes: “This places it among the top international crimes, after drugs, money-laundering and the sale of illegal weapons.”

Gentleman’s game?

Ever since the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in the summer of 1911, when a 30-year-old Italian painter-decorator walked out with the painting hidden beneath his workman’s coat, the media has indulged exorbitant speculation that high-profile art heists are carried out by gentlemen thieves or on behalf of nefarious connoisseurs hoping to gloat over their spoils in secret lairs that would have Ian Fleming’s Dr No squirming with envy. The reality, though, is very different.

“The myth of the sophisticated, art-loving Hollywood gentleman art thief is nothing like the real thing,” says Dick Ellis, a career detective with London’s Metropolitan Police. He set up the Art and Antiques Squad at New Scotland Yard in 1989, and was involved in the recovery of a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, after it had been stolen from the first floor of the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994 by two thieves who gained access by using a ladder and breaking a glass window, before leaving a postcard in Norwegian: “Thanks for the poor security”. “In reality, art thieves are professional criminals who view art and antiques as a soft touch, offering potentially high rewards and/or the ability to utilise the asset as a form of collateral to fund other areas of criminal activity.”

In part, this explains one of the puzzles surrounding this form of art crime: why thieves would want to purloin world-famous works of art that are essentially unsellable because they would be recognised at once if they were ever offered for sale in the future.

While some criminals hope to ransom lost artworks back to the institutions from which they were stolen, this strategy rarely works, according to Dick Ellis, because paying out ransoms, as well as being illegal, only encourages further thefts. Institutions are more likely to offer rewards for information leading to the recovery of stolen artworks. A $5m reward, for instance, is on the table for anyone who can crack the Isabella Stewart Gardner case – though, 23 years on, this has yet to yield results.

“Recovery rates internationally are very small, but best for well-known works of art,” explains Noah Charney, the founder of ARCA, and a professor of art history specialising in art crime. “So smarter criminals would steal B- or C-level works of art rather than more famous ones.”

Collateral damage

With ransom rarely an option, criminals find other uses for high-profile stolen paintings, which often accrue a new value on the black market – typically, according to Ellis, around three to 10% of a painting’s total estimated value as reported in the media. Once this value has been determined, a stolen painting can then be offered as collateral to help secure a loan to finance illicit endeavours. “In this way stolen art actually funds activities such as drugs or tobacco trafficking,” Ellis explains.

Moreover, he continues, “Art now provides an alternative mechanism to transporting cash” – offering a solution for criminals keen to circumvent money-laundering regulations. “Stolen art can easily be carried across international borders and is used as a kind of banker’s draft to pay for things like drugs consignments. It has an international value without the hassle of currency conversion and may even be accepted as a trophy payment by senior cartel members.”

The notion that stolen art can become a trophy in the criminal underworld goes back a long way. According to one police informer, Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence, an enormous altarpiece that was ripped from its frame and removed from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo in Sicily in 1969, was routinely displayed at meetings between top Mafia bosses during the ’80s.

In other words, it is time we knocked on the head the myth of the gentleman thief indulging his aesthetic passions. Art theft isn’t a victimless crime. It is a seedy, sordid business, linked to drug deals, money laundering and the criminal underworld.

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph

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