To catch a thief

Is a super-rich collector having works stolen to order?

On Art

When four burglars broke into the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) Museum in Dresden Castle recently and made off with three eighteenth-century jewellery sets, they made history. Their haul, part of the Saxon State patrimony, was said to be worth up to €1 billion, making it the highest value heist since 13 paintings valued at a cumulative $500 million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990.

Then, works by Vermeer, Manet, Rembrandt and Degas were taken and none have been recovered despite a $10 million reward being offered. Details of what was grabbed in November from Dresden after the thieves smashed display cases with axes have not been revealed, but a diamond known as the “Dresden White”, valued at some €10 million, is said to be one item.

German museums do not have a shining record when it comes to art theft. In 2017, a 100-kilogramme 24-carat gold coin was stolen from Berlin’s Bode Museum. The coin, a specially-minted Canadian “Big Maple Leaf” — a solid gold version of the novelty cheques used for charity photo opportunities — was so heavy the thieves had to trundle it through the museum in a wheelbarrow. It hasn’t been seen since and has most probably been cut up and melted down.

In 1994 two paintings by Turner on loan from the Tate Gallery, Shade and Darkness: The Evening of the Deluge and Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory): The Morning after the Deluge, were taken from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt alongside a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The Turners were finally recovered in 2002 (but not the Friedrich) several years after insurers had paid out £24 million for the pair.

In 1998, meanwhile, a small oil-on-copper portrait of Francis Bacon by his friend Lucian Freud was pinched in broad daylight from the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and no whiff of it has subsequently emerged. Freud speculated at the time that it might have been taken by a student “because it was stolen when the gallery was full of students. Also, for a student to take a small picture is not that odd, is it?”

The painting’s market value is unknowable, but a second, unfinished, Freud portrait of Bacon sold for $9.5 million in 2008. Bacon, it seems, is eminently nickable: in 2015 five painting by him were stolen from the Madrid home of his last lover — two of the five are still missing.

The Dresden smash and grab took place just two weeks after a similar raid had failed at Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, when an intruder broke into the gallery and tried to steal two paintings by Rembrandt. He was discovered and chased, but got away. The pictures were recovered in the gallery grounds and have been returned to their lenders, though it hasn’t been revealed which paintings they were.

The idea of a super-rich collector having works stolen to order is a fiction. The most likely motive is ransom or use as criminal collateral

The would-be thief perhaps saw him/herself as continuing a grand tradition: Dulwich’s Rembrandt portrait of the engraver Jacob de Gheyn III has been stolen from the gallery four times, the last being in 1983. The picture, known as the “takeaway Rembrandt”, is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most stolen painting, but didn’t make it to five-times-purloined since it wasn’t hanging in the gallery this time.

For all the overtones of The Thomas Crown Affair, the purpose of many such art thefts is unknown. The stolen works are unsaleable on the open market, leaving ransom/insurance money and their use as collateral between crime networks as the most likely reasons.

The idea of a super-rich collector with an aesthetic bent having works stolen to order is the stuff of fiction, although a French waiter and thief called Stéphane Breitwieser was convicted in 2005 of stealing 238 artworks from European museums for his personal collection — he had been caught after taking a bugle from the Richard Wagner museum in Lucerne. However, some 60 paintings, including a Brueghel the Younger and a Watteau, were cut up with scissors by his mother in an attempt to destroy evidence.

Nor does the fate of the Dresden jewels look optimistic. They are nigh-on impossible to sell on and even if broken up, which would in itself lower their value immeasurably, the gemstones are eighteenth-century cuts and so both suspicious and worth less than stones with a modern provenance. Melting the settings down, something German officials have pleaded with the thieves not to do, would yield a fraction in bullion compared to their current worth.

These recent episodes are a reminder of art theft’s special fascination, perfectly illustrated in 1911 when an Italian painter-decorator called Vincenzo Peruggia entered the Louvre, tucked the Mona Lisa under his smock and made off with it. In the following weeks more visitors came to see the gap left on the Louvre’s wall than had come to see the painting when it hung there. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover