IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Atmosphere of museums appeals to art thieves

The accessibility and atmosphere encouraging reflection and appreciation are also a reflection of how vulnerable many of Europe’s small museums are to thieves.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Only scratches remain on the white walls where the four Impressionist masterpieces once hung. No metal detectors, no armed guards, no cameras were in sight Tuesday, underscoring just how vulnerable many of Europe’s small museums are to thieves enticed by soaring art prices.

The robbers who carried out one of Europe’s most dramatic art heists are likely criminals with no art expertise or understanding of how difficult it is to sell such famous paintings, experts said Tuesday. The stolen works by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet are worth $163.2 million.

Karl-Heinz Kind, an art theft expert at Interpol, said part of the problem is the appeal of museums like the E.G. Buehrle Collection, with its accessibility and atmosphere encouraging reflection and appreciation.

“A museum or a church is not made to be a prison,” Kind said in a telephone interview from Lyon, France, where Interpol has its headquarters.

“You can imagine screening luggage or clothes under machines, or X-raying them. You could imagine in churches or cathedrals to put the statues of saints behind iron bars. That would certainly increase security. But is it really the purpose of a museum?”

Reconsidering securityMarco Cortesi of the Zurich police noted the robbery Sunday took less than three minutes, carried out by gunmen in ski masks who burst into the museum just before closing time. While one trained a pistol on museum personnel ordered to lie on the floor, two others collected the paintings and sped off with them.

Celebrity Sightings

Slideshow  26 photos

Celebrity Sightings

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

“In Europe we just didn’t have to plan for such an attack on a museum,” Cortesi said.

The Buehrle’s security included burglar alarms to protect against break-ins during the night and an alarm system that sounded at the police station if a picture was moved. But that was clearly not enough.

“The museum has state-of-the-art security against theft, but not against armed robbery,” said museum director Lukas Gloor as he showed reporters the collection, one of Europe’s finest for 19th century and 20th century art.

Gloor said the museum was reconsidering its security, including limiting visits to groups by prior arrangement. But he said he feared going too far.

“I see the intimate character that we used to have in this house threatened,” he said.

Easier to target artBut no matter what measures the museum imposes, it will probably be easier for criminals to target art than to hold up a bank, which is “better protected, with guards carrying guns, than a small museum would be,” said Kind.

Experts dismissed any suggestion the robbers knew what they were doing, saying they appeared to be opportunists looking for easy pickings and unaware it is virtually impossible to sell such famous works.

Kind referred to some of the biggest art heists in recent years, such as the robbery of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and “Madonna” from the Munch Museum in Norway in 2004, and a Leonardo da Vinci painting from a castle in Scotland in 2003. Those works were recovered.

“The robbers were successful in the first part of their job: to get possession of the paintings or the other works of art,” he said. “But they faced enormous — and perhaps unexpected — difficulties in realizing the second part: making money out of it.”

“As a consequence, they had to make repeated contacts to prospective buyers. And that is, of course, more chances for the police to get in. All these cases have been solved because of that. Because they did not find a buyer, they ended up with police,” he said.

Getting caughtThe Art Loss Register, which maintains the world’s largest database on stolen, missing and looted art, has recovered over $300 million worth of stolen works since it began in 1991. Julian Radcliffe, the founder and chairman, said most thieves either try to negotiate a ransom or attempt to resell the art, which often gets them caught.

The image of a wealthy collector with an underground gallery full of stolen art is only “a figment of the imagination of film directors,” Radcliffe said.

Most recoveries by the Art Loss Register have involved underworld criminal activity where the art was exchanged for drugs or money, he said.

By the time someone attempts to sell stolen art, it has often passed through many hands, sometimes over many years, he said. In some situations, a work is recovered when the owner dies and his or her children check in with dealers to see whether it is worth anything.

Kind said criminals rarely know the value of the art they steal, underscoring their ignorance by rolling up canvases together, smashing frames or otherwise damaging the pieces.

Gloor said the thieves on Sunday went straight to the Grand Hall containing some of the collection’s most valuable paintings.

They grabbed the first four they came to — apparently all they could carry. While those included the museum’s prize, Paul Cezanne’s “Boy in the Red Waistcoat,” worth $90 million, they left behind the second-most-valuable painting in the room — Cezanne’s “Self Portrait with Palette,” insured for $80 million.

The other stolen works were Claude Monet’s “Poppy field at Vetheuil,” Edgar Degas’ “Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter,” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Blooming Chestnut Branches.”

Cortesi said police have received a number of tips, but so far had no concrete leads. Authorities have yet to solve a smaller theft last week of two Picassos from nearby Pfaeffikon, and were investigating if the incidents were connected.

The FBI estimates the stolen art market at $6 billion annually, and Interpol has about 30,000 pieces of stolen art in its database. While only a fraction of that is ever recovered, such thefts are rare because of intense police investigations and the difficulty of selling the works.