Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Stolen Art Watch, Cavalier That's Not Bloody Laughing !!

A cavalier frame of mind

With international art trafficking valued at $8 billion a year, a recent NSW gallery theft is just one of many masterworks abducted, writes Philip Cornford.

On a wet Sunday in June, A Cavalier, a 17th century Dutch masterpiece insured for $1.4 million, was boldly taken from a wall during morning viewing hours at the Art Gallery of NSW.

All that was required was a Phillips head screwdriver to remove two $2.45 wall fastenings. About 60 seconds.

A Cavalier, oil on wood panel, was small, 20 x 16 centimetres, and easily concealed. The thief walked out with it.

Among many uncertainties, police are sure of one thing: this was not a spur-of-the-moment theft. It was not an impulse but calculated, the risks assessed.

Probably the most important factor was that A Cavalier was vulnerable, its frame secured to the wall by two keyhole plates at the top left and right, the screws clearly visible although painted the same colour as the wall, and accessible.

There was no CCTV surveillance. A guard was present only occasionally. No inside information was required.

Confronting his worst fears about the self-portrait by Frans van Mieris (1635-81), gallery director Edmund Capon says gravely: "My instinct is that I'm not likely to see it again ... I don't know why. I can't explain it. I just have this feeling."

Capon smiles sadly. Around him, the gallery canteen is full of sightseers, noisy with carefree innocence. Probably, few of them had ever heard of van Mieris or his painting, which had hung in the Fairfax Gallery.

It is perhaps Australia's biggest art theft. But four months later there are no answers.

Police believe it is "most likely" A Cavalier has been spirited overseas, probably the day it was stolen, to London or Amsterdam, where there are long-established markets for stolen art for which dealers pay a maximum of 10 per cent of the legal market value.

Although notionally that would value A Cavalier at $140,000, the United Kingdom's best-known art blogger, Art Hostage, a reformed art and jewel thief, says: "The insurance price is inflated. I'd estimate it's worth $20,000 max traded on the black, but maybe only a few thousand to the thief, who's looking to do a deal. A few snorts of coke."
It seems such a degrading and depressing possibility.

"There are no suspects, no forensic evidence," Detective Senior Constable Gavin McKean says. No fingerprints, no DNA, no witnesses. Not even the screws.

Just two empty screw holes and a blank space in the room where A Cavalier was the smallest of 13 paintings on display.

The same keyhole attachments were on other paintings and were quickly replaced.

However, there is intelligence about trafficking of stolen art between Australia and Britain. A week ago, at the request of London police, Sydney detectives seized two copies of maps drawn by Greek astrologer and cartographer Ptolemy (83-161 AD). Printed in Germany in 1482, they were stolen from the Spanish National Library in Madrid on August 21 and sold at a London auction to an Australian antique dealer. No charges have been laid.

Police attention has also been focused on the activities of two scions of a long-established English crime family who are suspected of exchanging stolen art between Australia and Britain.

One brother lives on the North Coast, a former drug dealer who was on the run with Ian Hall Saxon, one of Australia's most-wanted fugitives until he was captured in the United States in 1995. Saxon is now serving 24 years jail for importing 10 tonnes of cannabis and laundering more than $70 million in drug money.

Art stolen in Australia is taken to England and sold, and vice versa. "It is only a small part of their business," a police informant says. "They exchange the art during family reunions. It pays for the trips." But there is no evidence to connect them to A Cavalier.

Richard Ellis, who founded Scotland Yard's art squad and led investigations that recovered several masterpieces, says: "Australia has been a transit country for stolen art. I am aware of stolen works from Canada and the UK moving to Australia."

A difficulty confronting police is that public-gallery thefts are rare here. The Australian Institute of Criminology estimates that each year art worth about $20 million is stolen in Australia. Most of it is from domestic burglaries; most of it is valued below $10,000 and sold cheaply to art dealers and fencers. With such art, provenance is not required or the lack of it is easily explained.

"There are no professional art thieves; there are thieves who sometimes steal art," says Bryan Hanley, a former detective and manager of internal security at the National Library of Australia, 2004-06. Australia's foremost expert on art theft, Hanley has worked with the FBI and Scotland Yard and lectured internationally.

Yet the FBI says art theft totals $8 billion a year internationally, the fourth biggest crime behind drug dealing, arms dealing and money laundering. "There's more than $90 billion out there - somewhere," Hanley says.

While the most common motive for art theft is profit, one of the contradictions is that the more famous and valuable an artwork, the harder it is to sell illegally. "I suspect A Cavalier has gone overseas," Capon says. "But I also rather doubt there is a market for it anywhere in the world.

It is too well known, too easily identifiable."

It never can be put on public display.

However, there are two profit avenues for stealing art. If a painting is famous or valuable, a thief may hope a reward will be offered.

There is, for instance, a reward of $US10 million ($11 million) for 11 paintings valued at $US500 million stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. So far, there have been no takers.

Police recommended a reward be offered for A Cavalier in the hope it would either establish a line of contact with the thief or induce a betrayal.

Rewards are offered by Scotland Yard and the FBI, who both believe they are useful investigative tools.

A £3 million ($6.7 million) reward was the lure that led to the recovery two weeks ago of Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna with the Yarnwinder, worth up to $US65 million, and the arrest of four men in Scotland four years after it was stolen. It is believed the thieves despaired of selling the painting and sought recompense for their efforts.

Capon, however, decided against a reward, a decision, he says, which has been accepted by the NSW government insurers of A Cavalier. "I discussed it with colleagues around the world and their conclusion was that there is absolutely no benefit whatsoever," he says.

The insurer, Treasury Managed Funds, has agreed to liability, Capon says. Although no time limit has been set for settlement, "I don't think anything is to be gained by waiting forever," he says.

A second avenue for profit is demanding ransom. These are controversial, against the law in the US but have been exploited successfully in Britain and other European countries.

Capon has no doubts about his response. "If I was put in a position where someone says we could regain A Cavalier for payment of, say $100,000, it seems to me that is a situation in which they could be interpreted as profiting from the crime," he says. "I don't know what the legal position is regarding payment of ransom in Australia, but I would have a moral objection. I think it would be wrong."

Capon's most hopeful scenario is that the thief acted out of "sheer opportunism, perhaps mischievously". If this is so, he believes that after a time, A Cavalier will be returned, perhaps left in a safe place and the police or gallery told where to find it.

There are precedents. A Dobell stolen from the Art Gallery of NSW in 1984 was collected from a locker in the Mitchell Library. Two years later, thieves who identified themselves as Australian Cultural Terrorists stole Picasso's Weeping Woman and left it in a locker at Spencer Street railway station in Melbourne.

Another possibility is that A Cavalier was stolen by an obsessive art admirer, someone suffering what has been identified as the Stendhal syndrome diagnosed in 1982 as a "psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucination when an individual is exposed to art".

A French waiter, Stephane Breitwieser, stole 200 paintings and antiques from dealers and museums in seven European countries, keeping them in his mother's house until 2002 when he was arrested.
In April an "obsessed collector", Hendrikus van Leeuwen, an employee of the Australian Museum, was jailed for seven years for stealing more than 2000 exhibits in seven years.
Police, however, say there is no evidence or suspicion that the theft of A Cavalier was an inside job.

But these are rare exceptions. Most stolen art is sold and masterpieces go deep underground. The most famous illustration is Caravaggio's Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, valued at $US20 million and stolen in 1969 from the Oratory on San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy.
It is so famous it can't be sold. So who has it?

The Sicilian Mafia, says Art Hostage ( "It's used at the investiture of the godfather, the don of dons. They are quite emotional about it. They took it to Switzerland in the '80s to a restorer who restored and disguised many stolen artworks for me. Expensive but good."

But Hanley suggests an alternative reason. "It's also a message to the Italian police and government - don't muck with us."

A former Scotland Yard art detective, Charles Hill, best known for the sting that recovered Edvard Munch's The Scream in 1994, believes the Gardner collection is held by the IRA, most likely in the futile hope it could be used to bargain for the release of political prisoners.

The paintings - three Rembrandts, five by Degas, a Manet, Vermeer, Flinck - were passed to them by Boston Irish crime boss Whitey Bulger, a former FBI informant now on the run for murder. "Find Whitey and you'll find the Gardner collection," says Hill, who runs an art security consultancy.

He suspects A Cavalier is a "trophy" crime. "Stealing a picture from a major gallery - it's simply about trophy hunting," he says. It might have been stolen on the orders of a collector, who has no intention of selling.

However, Hill, Ellis, Hanley and the FBI's top stolen art investigator, Robert Wittman, all believe there are no "Dr No's", obsessive billionaires who gloat over private collections of masterpieces illicitly obtained. There are unscrupulous collectors and dealers, but not on the scale imagined in fiction.

"The real art in stealing art is selling it," says Wittman, who has recovered stolen art valued at $US215 million.

Enter organised crime, which has become a major player, using stolen art as collateral in drug, arms and other criminal deals.

"Art is an international currency that does not require any kind of currency exchange ... which could attract unwanted attention," Ellis says.

But it seems an unlikely fate for A Cavalier. Compared with the value of other stolen masterpieces, it is worth "shirt buttons," Art Hostage says.

Will it ever resurface?

"Maybe," he says.

There's no such thing as a certainty with stolen art. Just that it's stolen.

Art Hostage comments:

Quality article, gives those who may not be familiar with art related crime a clear insight.

Mr Cornford manages to squeeze into under 2,000 words, bullet points that would take Art Hostage 20,000 words.

Perhaps that is why Mr Philip Cornford is an experienced, quality journalist, working for a quality publication.

To those who may have vital information about the whereabouts of the stolen Cavalier, reward no, gracious thanks from the people of New South Wales, a big yes !!

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