Vermeer's The Concert

Vermeer's The Concert

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stolen Art Watch, Art Hostage Knows, He's Been There !!

Seven Questions: A Reformed Stolen-Art Dealer Tells All

Posted February 2008

To recover stolen masterpieces, museums must often deal with the criminal underworld.

This is where informants like “Art Hostage” come in.

Once a dealer in stolen art and antiques, he now assists with stolen-art investigations.

He spoke with FP about why high-profile art theft is on the rise and how authorities can stop it.

Foreign Policy: You’ve said that you got out of the stolen-art game to provide an example for your son. Can you tell me how you came to find art theft morally objectionable?

Art Hostage: Look, I’m not justifying handling stolen stuff, but that’s going to go on.

What really annoys me—and I’m sure it would annoy you and your readers—is when they steal stuff from public buildings and museums, which denies the public access to those pictures.

I want to create an environment where we create dispersal, and people are frightened to steal from museums and public galleries because of the penalties, and then they might start robbing private collectors.
Now, don’t get me wrong; private collectors are in a better place to protect themselves with added security, whereas public museums and buildings don’t have the finances to do that.

You have to be a bit more subtle in your approach.

FP: Do art thieves usually rely on these thefts as their main source of income, or are they typically involved in other sorts of crimes?

AH: Well, mostly you’re talking about burglars who go into people’s houses to steal things.

Back in the 1980s, they would steal VCRs and TVs, but then people found that antiques and art were worth more money. …

We get these big headline-grabbing thefts, but the majority of thefts come off the public, and they’re normally $100,000 or less.

Now, we’ve had two major heists in one week [four impressionist paintings stolen from the E.G. B├╝hrle collection in Zurich and two Picasso paintings stolen in the nearby town of Pfaeffikon], but just in the U.S. you’re talking about 100 or 200 a day of art thefts from domestic properties.

That’s really where the problem is. It’s all right that these big ones make the headlines, but underneath that you’ll find the majority of art theft is against the private citizen.

For every Picasso that’s stolen, there are hundreds of paintings worth $20,000 or so rather than $20 million.

FP: What typically happens to famous or iconic works of art after they are stolen?

AH: When they get them, they can be exchanged for an amount of drugs which can then be sold. They can be sold to what’s called a “criminal venture capitalist” who might, let’s say, give $1 million for the painting, and then there’s a $5 million reward for them.

Even if it takes five years [to sell], that’s a 500 percent return on investment.

Say I’m a drug importer and you come to me with those pictures and I give you $1 million worth of Class A drugs to sell.

I would then pass them on to a criminal venture capitalist or to someone else to settle a debt, and that’s how they change hands.

Sometimes, they’ll put it away as a bargaining chip and then later on they might offer it back to get a lesser sentence for something else.

FP: So stolen art is like a form of currency?

AH: Yes, it is.

I mean, the mainstream media whores always run out the same line that, “Oh, they’ll never be able to sell it. There’s no market.” I understand why they do that, but it’s a bit disingenuous.

Sure, they won’t sell famous art for market value.

But if you’ve got four men who steal four pictures in a half-hour heist, plus planning, and sell it for a million, that’s $250,000 for a very small amount of work.

Robbers that used to go into a bank or hold up an armored truck found it very difficult to escape and found that they would get very big sentences.

But if an armed robber goes into a museum and makes off with art, he can get a similar type of return for a lot less risk, and if he gets caught, the actual penalties are a slap on the wrist.

Those guys who took The Scream in Norway? One guy got six years, and one got four years.

That’s not really a deterrent, is it?

FP: Back when you were in the business, were you ever approached about buying art of that value?

AH: Well, there was one painting that was stolen that was valued at £5 million.

I paid $20,000 for it and sold it for $100,000 within two days.

I made $80,000 in two days, and I didn’t care that it was worth £5 million.

To be honest with you, the kind of stuff we’re talking about now, Vermeer and all that, I would put that in a class I call “headache stuff.”

I’d much rather deal with a $100,000 piece of silver or $20,000 bits and pieces, but lots of it.

FP: Are there any specific museums or works that you’ve seen that seem particularly at risk to you?

AH: Yes. I’ve written about it. It’s the Vermeer that’s been stolen twice already in Ireland, Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid.

It now sits in the National Gallery [of Ireland] in Dublin. It’s already been stolen on two occasions, and it’s sitting on a wall in a place where it would be easy to just rip it down and flee across Dublin on a motorbike because it’s very small. That’s one that’s under threat, and I’ve even contacted the curator about it.

Also, the National Gallery in London is quite at risk because in the first gallery, you’ve got Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and several other pictures right by the entrance.

The factors to consider are blank spots in security, location, the size of the articles for movability, the estimated response of law enforcement. Probably the best ingredient is inside information.

FP: What steps do you think museums or law enforcement officials could take to deter high-profile art thefts in the future?

AH: Number one: There should be [sentencing] guidelines to judges that anyone stealing from a public building over a certain value gets a mandatory 10 years.

By doing that, you will put off a lot of people, though not everyone, because it ups the risk-reward factor.

At the moment, if you walked into a museum in D.C. and took a Rembrandt, you’d get about three to five years and maybe a plea bargain.
But if you equated the value of the Rembrandt to other commodities, you’d be looking at 25 to life.

The second thing they could do is have a blanket ban on offering rewards for works that have been stolen out of public buildings and museums.

The refusal to pay a reward means that the benchmark for its value in the underworld is more uncertain.

Art Hostage has been working for years to broker a deal for the return of the paintings stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.

His opinions on news and rumors from the world of art theft can be found at the blogs Art Hostage and Stolen Vermeer.

He prefers to remain anonymous, but FP confirmed his identity and background independently.

The Art of the Steal

By David Shillingford

By some estimates, the trade in stolen art is the world’s fourth-largest black market—behind only drugs, money laundering, and weapons.

David Shillingford is director of North American operations for the Art Loss Register, a private, international database of lost and stolen art, antiques, and collectibles.

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