A scream for control, notoriety


Psychology plays a role in theft from Oslo museum

August 24, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The theft of one of the world's most famous paintings, The Scream by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, has left many wondering what the perpetrators of the heist could possibly want.

The truth is it's very likely that they don't know what they want, at least consciously.

Two masked men stole the picture and another Munch painting, Madonna, from Oslo's lightly guarded Munch Museum on Sunday after threatening the unarmed guards and visitors with pistols. They then fled in a waiting car.

The painting, which depicts a tortured figure standing on a bridge and covering its ears with its hands under a red sunset, is an icon of modern art, far too well-known to be sold on the open market. Estimates of its value range from $60 million to more than $100 million, but it's unlikely that any legitimate collector would purchase such a well-known piece even on the black market.

So why would anyone want to risk imprisonment to steal it?

Police speculated the robbers' motive might be ransom. In 1994, another version of The Scream was stolen from Oslo's National Gallery and authorities later received a demand of $1 million for the picture's return.

The government refused to pay, but three months later the thieves were arrested and the painting was recovered.

That story had a happy ending. Yet the sad truth is that most famous artworks that are stolen simply disappear.

The most famous art heist in recent memory is probably the 1990 theft of some $300 million worth of paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, including several Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet and five works by Degas.

Those paintings have never turned up. Nor have a Renoir and a Rembrandt taken from Sweden's National Museum in 2000, a Leonardo da Vinci stolen from Scotland's Drumlanrig Castle in 2003, or a Picasso that disappeared from the Pompidou Center in Paris earlier this year.

One has to assume that all these works are still intact, and that the perpetrators of these crimes have not destroyed them. That means they're all sitting around somewhere waiting to be rediscovered - in a few decades or a few centuries.

If the thieves' motive isn't money, though, one has to look to psychology for an understanding of their crimes.

In 1995, a year after the first theft of The Scream, the Walters Art Museum convened a panel of experts that included both law-enforcement and mental health professionals. They concluded that art theft is a form of compulsive behavior often aimed at compensating for past loss or trauma.

The Walters panel suggested that the motivations of art thieves may be traced to unconscious drives that are remarkably similar to those of forgers and legitimate collectors: a craving for approval, the need to repair some childhood loss, an outlet for competitive impulses and a lust for power and control.

Museum professionals have long noted that art thieves hardly ever steal pieces that are not famous for some reason, either by virtue of their subject matter or unique place in art history (as in Munch's painting) or because of the fame of the artist (as in Leonardo's work).

The ability to exercise complete private control over such coveted objects, even if it must be done in absolute secrecy, seems to be part of the allure of such crimes. It may be related to a desire for control among people whose lives are otherwise deeply flawed. (Indeed, for some personality types, the mere fact of possessing the secret confers a sense of power and accomplishment.)

Or the crime may be an expression of the competitive impulse that drives business tycoons and great statesmen. One is reminded of the story line from the film The Thomas Crown Affair, whose art-loving protagonist, the proverbial man who has everything, steals a famous painting - and then returns it - solely for the purpose of demonstrating his superior inventiveness and wit.

Of course, anyone who finds it necessary to resort to such tactics in order to bolster their sense of injured self-esteem is by definition an obsessive-compulsive personality. Such neurotic disorders usually have their origins in a painful childhood trauma or loss.

Whatever the conscious motivation of the Munch thieves - money, power, the measure of notoriety conferred by the reflected glory of the stolen object - we may assume that they were also impelled by powerful unconscious drives, drives that psychoanalysts would instantly recognize as all-too-human responses to threats to the ego.

That is why no matter how skillfully planned and executed (oddly, the Oslo heist appears to have been neither), such acts are always at bottom irrational.

Yet it is precisely the psychological complexity of the thief's motivation - the unpredictability and arbitrariness of how each perpetrator works out his or her own issues of power and control, craving for approval, competitiveness and redress of loss - that makes stolen artworks so difficult to recover.

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