Art Theft: Not As Romantic As In The Movies

In the dark of the night, a slim, athletic character in a black catsuit, with a tool belt and a roll of rope on their back, approaches a museum in complete silence. They cut the windowpane or crawl through the ventilation system, disable the alarms. They descend from the ceiling in the iconic Tom Cruise style, grab the piece of art they came for, and disappear in the petrified stares of the guards.

Art theft may look like this in the movies – in real life, though, it’s a lot more down-to-earth. And art thieves are rarely romantic characters with higher education, in-depth knowledge of art and history, or have sophisticated tastes.

An 83-year-old smuggler

Jaime Botín is a Spanish billionaire, art connoisseur, former Vice President of the Santander Bank, and… an art smuggler? The title fits, even if his intentions were not to steal and smuggle a piece of art – actually, the painting in question was his own.

The 83-year-old billionaire art smuggler was charged and sentenced this January for smuggling “cultural goods” out of Spain on his yacht. The “goods” was Picasso’s “Head of a Young Woman”, a painting declared a national treasure by the country’s government that was exposed on Botín’s personal yacht. And the “smuggling” itself consisted of the act of Botín sailing on his yacht to Corsica, the Mediterranean island that belongs to France. Botín was caught and forced to forfeit the painting.

The one that got away

Van Gogh’s “Poppy Flowers” was on display at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in central Cairo in the summer of 2010… that until it vanished, of course. There’s no telling who did the stealing but those who did the smuggling were caught by the security at the Cairo airport: an Italian couple consisting of a young man and a young woman.

Except it wasn’t, it seems. The Egyptian culture minister soon retracted his announcement of the painting being found, saying it was apparently based on “inaccurate information” – apparently, it was not the two Italian youngsters who stole the painting, and it wasn’t recovered at all.

The stolen Van Gogh has not been recovered to this day. The identity of the thief (or thieves) was not revealed – but 11 culture ministry employees, including the country’s deputy culture minister, were sentenced for negligence and professional delinquency.

The thief’s choice

If there was a documentary about dumb criminals, these three Romanian thieves would certainly deserve an episode dedicated to them.

Three petty thieves in Rotterdam, tired of making pennies, decided to get into antiques without even the slightest idea about what to steal and from where. They punched “Rotterdam museums” into their GPS – the closest to their location was the “Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam”.

After breaking in, they found that there was nothing to steal from a natural history museum but stuffed animals and bones. They left the premises undetected and immediately found the Kunsthal Museum, a place with no permanent collection but often hosting others, and decided to try their luck there.

The Kunsthal was hosting an exhibition called “Avânt Gardes” with more than 150 paintings by artists like Picasso, Monet, Modigliani, Degas, and Van Gogh. After several days of scouting and planning, the three proceeded to raid the museum. Their criteria to choose which paintings to take was simple: the signatures of the artists they identified online, and the size of their handbags (all of them had to fit in a 40 by 50-centimeter bag).

The three stole 7 paintings signed by Picasso, Mattise, Monet, Gaugain, Meyer de Haan, and Lucian Freud. They originally planned to sell them in Belgium but they ultimately took them to their home country.

After several unsuccessful attempts to find an intermediary – and the authorities catching up to them – the three hid the paintings at one of the thieves’ mother’s house. When the three were arrested, the mother took a desperate step: she unearthed the paintings hidden underground in the village cemetery and burned them in her stove, sending tens of millions of dollars – and several invaluable pieces of art – literally up in smoke.

Photo Credits

Photo is pixabay creative commons


Guest Author Bio
István Lipták 

Cooked up in the Western part of an Eastern European country, the author has extensive work experience in everything from selling groceries to handling the acquisitions of a computer parts distributor. A passionate writer with many unpopular opinions who considers verifiable information vital in today’s online publishing environment, he is concerned about the average IQ (falling) of the planet’s population (growing). His superpower: the ability to laugh at himself!

 

 

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