Not many academic disciplines seem to be so embedded in harmless romantic ideas as the study of art crime. For many observers of big art heists, the first thing that pops into their mind is somebody like Thomas Crown in the movie, The Thomas Crown Affair. A gentleman thief who steals art for fun and to admire it, or maybe a thief who works for some mysterious rich collector, casually implied in some other well-known movie. In Dr. No, the first James Bond movie from 1962, Goya’s 1812 Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London hangs in the secret hideout of Dr. No. The portrait was stolen a year before, and the thief was still unknown when the movie was produced.
Despite these popular images, they could hardly be further from the truth of most art crimes. While I have been studying art thefts myself for over fifteen years, these characters are rare. A unique exhibit in the the picturesque city of Hoorn, in the Netherlands, tries to show the real face of this crime, like for example the theft from a 84 year-old lady in Bilthoven.
It was a Sunday night in October 1999, when a group of masked men entered her villa. The fragile woman was smashed against a radiator and guarded, while other robbers emptied the walls and took seven masterpieces within fifteen minutes. The brutal robbery had an enormous impact on her, one from which she would never recover. It was only in 2012, when one of the paintings was offered at Christie’s and recognized by the auction house staff. The fences were arrested and four more paintings were recovered, together with several types of drugs. For the owner, the recovery came too late. She had died several months before.
This tragic history is one of thirty stories that together make up the exhibition Plunder, Art Theft in the Netherlands, that started last month in the Westfries Museum in Hoorn. For the first time, art crime is the subject of an exhibition in the Netherlands, instead of the art works themselves. At the opening ceremony, Lynda Albertson, CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), contributed with a passionate speech about the importance of cultural heritage protection. ARCA is a research and outreach organization which works to promote the study and research of art crime and cultural heritage protection. Every year it organizes the world’s only interdisciplinary postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection in Amelia (Italy).
For anyone interested in art crime, the Westfries Museum probably rings a bell. It is the museum that was robbed in 2005, the night before it was scheduled to celebrate its 125th birthday. Twenty-four paintings were stolen, together with 70 pieces of antique silver, from the museum's collection. In April 2016, four paintings were recovered in the Ukraine and a fifth was later voluntarily returned by its new owner. In September that year, they were returned to the museum, some in very bad condition, requiring extensive restoration. The fifteen other paintings and silverware still remain missing.
Through this exhibit, the museum aims to highlight the phenomenon of art theft in all its facets. From the motives of perpetrators to the suffering of victims. Thirty objects are used to demonstrate this. The singular thing each object has in common is the fact that they each were stolen in the Netherlands during the last few decades. Every item tells its own story and, together, they provide a fascinating look into the world of art and antiquities crime.
Even for someone familiar with art crime, the enormous diversity of the objects stolen is striking. Examples of works of art stolen from museums are supplemented with art stolen from private residences, art dealers and even a whole truck of art and antiquities destined for an art fair. One artist was robbed many times, with a total loss of 27 bronze statues, another lost 37 of his paintings in one single theft. The motives of the thieves are less diverse, and show the ugly reality of art theft. In the end, it usually comes down to money, even when the modus operandi may differ.
Theft for ransom, stolen art as collateral for criminals, theft in order to sell the works at auction or to dealers, and even theft to order from a dealer are all present in one remarkable exhibition.
In preparing this article, I spoke with the museum about the purpose of this exhibition, in their museum that was, and still is, a victim of art crime itself. Ad Geerdink, the director or the Westfries Museum, explains:
“We want to achieve more awareness and public outrage about this topic. But also to ensure that owners of art and antiquities are more conscious of what they themselves can do themselves to prevent thefts. Or, in the unfortunate case a theft nevertheless happens, to ensure they have adequate documentation for police agencies and registers of stolen art.”
Documentation, or the lack of it, is a recurring theme around art thefts. When asked about the lessons one can learn from this exhibit and art theft in general, Martin Finkelnberg also stresses the importance of documentation. Finkelnberg is head of the Art and Antique Crime Unit, National Criminal Intelligence Division of the National Police of the Netherlands.
“The takeaway to learn here is that everything of value is vulnerable and thus a potential target for criminals. To guard against that, it's very important to document every valuable object, as without documentation, recovery after a theft is almost impossible. Everybody already understands that to recover an automobile, the owner cannot merely state ‘it was a green car of a German brand.’ Why then do individuals assume that one can do this with an artwork? How effective can police officers be if the only thing they have to go on is ‘it was old, multicolored and painted on wood?’”
The exhibition “Plunder, Art Theft in the Netherlands” will run through February 12, 2018 at the Westfries Museum, Roode Steen 1, Hoorn (The Netherlands).