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art theft and the case of the stolen turners

20 july 2012

In his uneven but highly informative study Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners, Sandy Nairne lists four motives for the theft of high-profile artworks: resale, ransom, obsession, and politics. The third and fourth are romantic but rare. There are more directly persuasive methods of political activism than stealing Old Masters. And the "Dr. No"-type art thief, the one who purloins irreplaceable wonders for the pleasure of looking at them in his diabolical super-villain lair, is evidently a myth. Though how would we know? And in the case of the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, maybe the best theory is that they are sitting in a mad superman's climate-controlled mountain chamber, where he can sit and gaze at them, stroke his cat, and cackle insidiously. It's as good as another.

But more likely, the Gardner thefts are stashed somewhere, safe but not particularly gloated over, waiting for the right moment to be reconverted into cash. They have probably not been sold. Among them is a Vermeer. The Concert is putatively worth $200M, but there is no market for Vermeers. A handful exist, and they just don't circulate the way old dressers and crockpots do. As Nairne (a long-time administrator at the UK's national Tate museums) points out, nobody's going to act as a fence for something quite that hot.

Indeed, thieves of fine art are caught in a paradox. Steal a Vermeer, and you can't dispose of it; but at least there is little doubt that you have obtained something impressive. Steal a Jan Van Vatsisname, and you may be able to shop it for a few thousand euros; but the market is likely to be skeptical of the goods, and the return isn't worth the risk. Because of this dynamic, Nairne says, the likeliest use for top-shelf paintings is as underworld collateral. Huge sums of money flow through the international drug trade, and dealers distrust one another mightily. They like security, and a $200M painting might secure a $20M line of credit – the discount corresponding to the difficulty of using the painting as anything but collateral.

And then there's the most common motive of all, ransom. If you want some short-term payoff, the best bet is effectively to sell the painting back to its owners. (I know I keep using "you" as if you, the reader, were going to get yourself a mat knife and a bottle of chloroform and go out and cut the Madonna of the Rocks out of her frame; my apologies, it's just an idiom :)

Nairne was involved in a case that tested the ethical boundaries of theft-for-ransom, the 1994 theft and subsequent recovery of two Tate Turners from a gallery in Frankfurt. (A painting by Caspar David Friedrich, belonging to the Hamburg Kunsthalle, was stolen along with them; it too returned, though Nairne doesn't tell much of its story.) German authorities caught and tried the thieves soon enough, but the paintings remained well-hidden for years. Eventually a German lawyer named Edgar Liebrucks told the Tate that he knew the whereabouts of the Turners and could arrange their return – for a price.

Liebrucks is one intriguing character in Nairne's otherwise formless, blow-by-blow narrative. So are some of the British art detectives, who range from Alec-Guinness-like masters of disguise to blokes more reminiscent of Doug and Dinsdale Piranha. Dealing with the British good guys and the (German? Serbian? who knows?) villains on the other must have stressed Liebrucks considerably. Still more, there's a thin line between being someone's lawyer and being someone's fence. Liebrucks appears to have trodden the line pretty well, because after the UK Treasury authorized some finders' fees, the Turners arrived home – to controversy, because the fees looked like ransom. Worse, the insurers had settled for very little on the dollar, and the Tate appeared, even after paying the fees, to have made a killing on the theft – even to the point of using the insurance proceeds to fund its new Modern museum.

Nonsense, says Nairne, the money was used ethically. And anyway, what's a few million compared to getting the Turners back for a nation and its public? The danger is that ransom, even if termed a "reward for information," may encourage future theft; but such thefts remain rare. Security can be improved to counter them, in the light of analysis of its failures past. International indexes of art can be upgraded to register thefts not just of Turners and Vermeers but of works down to a few thousand pounds' value, thus turning even middling masterpieces into unfenceable canvas. Some skeptics think that a worldwide comprehensive art register is a pipedream (245-246), but clearly the Internet brings the goal more and more within reach. If people can create databases of every pitch thrown in major-league baseball and every bit part played in every movie ever, they can certainly create databases of valuable artworks.

Nairne is good on famous thefts, and very good on the vexed question of value (quoting Barbara Herrnstein Smith tellingly on the fact that the value of art is set by nothing intrinsic, but by a host of cultural and historical factors). I could wish for a more compelling true-crime narrative, but his drably frustrating diary of the absence of the Turners probably does reflect the banality of crime better than a more suspenseful story would have. The case of the stolen Turners provokes much thought about art and crime – two of humanity's favorite activities.

Nairne, Sandy. Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners. London: Reaktion, 2011.