Last week's theft and quick recovery of 20 major Van Gogh paintings from a museum in Amsterdam left authorities puzzled as to who was responsible and why they abandoned their booty shortly after the robbery. But the incident also raised other questions that surface every time such a theft takes place.
Who would steal unique and world-famous paintings that would be difficult, if not impossible, to sell? How would they get rid of them? Is there some international ring that organizes major art thefts? What about security -- is it getting better?
In addition, the paintings taken last Sunday from the Van Gogh National Museum were not insured; do museums no longer insure their art?
And is theft from museums on the increase? Last Thursday, just four days after the Amsterdam incident, there was an attempted theft of a 19th century vase at the Walters Art Gallery here. A psychiatric outpatient was arrested after dropping and breaking the $5,000-$10,000 vase.
Constance Lowenthal, who heads a New York-based registry of stolen art, believes art is often stolen by people who then don't know what to do with it. "Many thieves who have turned to stealing art know very little about the art world," said the executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, which keeps records of art thefts worldwide and disseminates information on those works. Rather than a master ring of international art thieves, she thinks perpetrators are often unsophisticated. "They know the headlines, they know how valuable [the art] is, but they don't know how to get rid of it. They learn the hard way that payday is not around the corner."
The FBI's national art theft coordinator, John Louden, said last week that he isn't aware of any master theft rings either. Nor, he added, is he aware of any "official underground organization that moves stolen art."
Ms. Lowenthal cited the 1988 Colnaghi theft as an example of lack of sophistication. Thieves entered the Colnaghi Art Gallery in New York and stole 28 old master paintings and drawings valued at $6 million. "The thieves had no prior idea of the value of what they were taking. When they saw [the figure] in the press they panicked and sold everything for $40,000 and left the country." Fourteen of the works were later recovered, she said.
In 1988, 145 items, including rare Oriental porcelains, were stolen from the Walters Art Gallery by a security guard and subsequently recovered. At the time of that theft, Ms. Lowenthal said that small, non-unique items such as porcelains are favored by thieves because they're easy to carry and often are "interchangeable and sort of anonymous." Such famous and unique works as the Van Goghs stolen in Amsterdam, or the paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas and others stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston last year and not yet recovered, are too well known to be sold through any legitimate channels.
But there are people who will receive such art, though usually for only a small fraction of what it's worth, she said last week. "Sometimes if they don't buy it they will accept it as partial payment in some other suspicious deal. It is after all a very valuable cash equivalent and one that travels across borders more readily than millions of dollars in cash. It's not too hard to cook up false invoices, and most customs people don't recognize things from a list of thousands of stolen items."
The difficulty of selling well-known stolen art may send it underground for years. Last year a group of paintings stolen in 1985 from the Marmottan Museum in Paris, including works by Renoir and Monet, turned up in Corsica. "From what I've read in news accounts," Mr. Louden said, "the thieves attempted to sell them on the illicit market and couldn't. They were stuck with them." He added that the FBI has recovered pieces "stolen 20 or 25 years ago."
Stolen art may "go to a fence fairly quickly, or get warehoused or abandoned" when thieves realize it's too hot to handle, Ms. Lowenthal said. And one of the best ways to make it too hot is to get the word out as fast as possible. As soon as it learns of a theft, IFAR notifies the art community (dealers, auction houses) immediately. And Interpol, which operates as a police communications link, notifies authorities in 154 countries.
But it's not easy to get stolen art back. Since IFAR began keeping records in 1976, about 35,000 objects have been reported to it as stolen. Only about 12 percent is recovered.
Knowing that stolen art will be hard to get rid of, thieves can take another course: ransoming it back to the people or institutions it was taken from. "At that point you have an 'artnapping' scenario," said Ms. Lowenthal. But the police are good at dealing with such scenarios, she said, and the thieves' strategy often proves unsuccessful.
While museum thefts of any scale usually make the newspapers, their number is "small" in "relation to home burglaries," Mr. Louden said.