x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Painted into a corner

Stolen artwork is nearly impossible to resell. So why do thieves take it?

"Not many Magrittes have been stolen," says William Webber. "It's a pretty high-profile theft. We picked up the news from Interpol's art squad and put it on our database as quickly as possible." Webber works for The Art Loss Register, an organisation that lists more than 300,000 works of art that have recently been reported missing or stolen. Its shareholders include the auction houses Christie's, Sotheby's and Bonhams. He says last week's news that two men held a Belgian museum worker at gunpoint in order to steal a famous Rene Magritte painting, Olympia, electrified the art world. The 1948 painting - a nude of the artist's wife - is worth about ?3 million (Dh16m) according to authorities, and is too famous to sell on the open market.

So why steal it at all? "Art is highly valuable, highly portable and, while you can make a lot of money from it, the sentences for art theft are much less than for drugs or gun running," says Terressa Davis, the director of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, an international, non-governmental think tank on art crime. And often, art is poorly protected. "A painting can be worth $10 million (Dh36.7m), but you wouldn't hang $10 million on a wall in full public view with one security guard watching over it," she says.

Art theft is big business - worth $6 billion (Dh22bn) a year, according to the FBI, and one of the biggest criminal enterprises after drugs, gun-running and money laundering. "Films like The Thomas Crown Affair perpetuate a public misconception that art theft is a non-violent affair perpetrated by gentlemen thieves," says Davis. "But it isn't. It is nearly always linked to organised crime." Once stolen, art is easy to transport - sniffer dogs can not detect a Rembrandt at airport security - but then it gets tricky. Famous paintings such as Olympia are very difficult to sell.

A popular misconception is that thieves steal to order, but there is no evidence to support this, Webber says. If they find a buyer for their stolen goods, they typically receive between seven and 10 per cent of the probable auction value, he says, so thieves often hold the artwork to ransom. "If insurance companies don't pay up, the art is often returned unharmed," says Davis. "There is no benefit to the thieves in destroying it. Art can't bear witness to crime."

Fine art is frequently used as a bargaining chip in exchange for another commodity such as cash or drugs. The most profitable trade is in antiquities, which, unlike fine art, are often unregistered, Davis says, so police do not even know it exists. "Al Qa'eda have made a lot of money from trading stolen antiquities," she says. While criminals are usually responsible for art crime, some of the most famous art heists in history have not fitted this model.

In 2000, the art lover Stephane Breitwieser was discovered to have stolen 238 artworks from museums around Europe to augment his personal collection. When he was finally arrested, his mother shredded 60 paintings by artists including Brueghel and Watteau in an effort to hide the evidence. In 1974, the IRA bound and gagged Sir Alfred Beit and his family at his country seat in Ireland and made off with 19 paintings worth £8m (Dh47m). They were hoping to use the artwork as a bargaining chip in exchange for IRA prisoners, but the paintings were discovered in a cottage in Cork before any trade could take place. It wasn't a new idea. In 1878, the burglar Adam Worth stole Gainsborough's The Duchess of Devonshire to negotiate the release of an accomplice from prison.

In 1999, the Los Angeles ophthalmologist Steven Cooperman arranged the theft of two of his own paintings - a Monet and a Picasso - in order to claim $17m (Dh62.5m) in insurance. "In a recession, most of my jobcentres on fraudulent insurance claims," Webber says. Perhaps the most famous art theft was by the museum employee Vincenzo Peruggia, who pinched the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. He was caught two years later. Two versions of Edvard Munch's The Scream have been stolen on different occasions in Norway (both were returned). And Rembrandt's Jacob de Gheyn has been swiped four times.

But the biggest art robbery is the $500m (Dh1.8bn) haul thieves took from the Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Among the 13 pieces stolen was Vermeer's The Concert, which is the most valuable stolen painting in the world. None of the pieces has been recovered despite the $5m (Dh18.4m) offered for information leading to their return. Davis finds this upsetting. "It's shocking," she says. "If the trade in stolen works of art isn't stopped, there'll be nothing left to study."