16 November 2012
Art theft and the trafficking of stolen works of art is a major criminal business, perhaps the largest in terms of financial value after the illegal trade in arms and drugs. The FBI currently values criminal income from art theft at $6-8 billion a year. The Art Loss Register - a private company that documents and helps trace stolen or lost artworks, antiques and collectables - has over 300,000 items listed in its database and adds a further 10,000 each year.
The theft of artworks is commonplace, but it becomes a news item, and lodged in the public's memory, when the works are by major artists or when they are taken from museums. The loss in these cases is shared and public, and interest may be piqued by the enormous value of the artworks and by details of exactly how they were taken - particularly if there are echoes of well known films.
On 20 May 2010 five paintings by five different modern masters were stolen from the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The group ranges in date from 1906 to 1922, and represents a roll call of some of the most famous names in modern art - Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Modigliani and Léger.
The museum's CCTV footage revealed that the theft was carried out by just one man in the early hours of the morning, though he may have had accomplices waiting outside the museum. He selected the five works, which were in different galleries, and made his get away in no more than fifteen minutes. Three guards were on duty at the time but did not notice anything unusual. The security alarms did not function and the incident came to light only at 6.50am when a guard patrolling the grounds spotted the broken window.
The care with which the thief chose these particular works among the several hundred on display raised suspicions that he may have been stealing to order by one or more private collectors somewhere in the world. However, art thefts are rarely undertaken to order: more usually, the works are taken to act as collateral in underworld dealings, or, in the case of private collectors, to demand ransom money (though museums will not pay ransom demands to avoid encouraging theft).
The Paris museum remained shut for the day, as police attempted to gather evidence. They quickly revealed, however, that they had little to go on; and their alerting of airports and ports yielded nothing.
Valued at 100 million euros (though this may be conservative), the paintings are still missing and there is no public information known about what happened to them or where they might be now.
The trail seems to have gone cold although the expectation must be that these paintings will be returned one day, through one channel or another, to the museum and to the public that owns the works.
To find out more about the theft of these paintings, please visit here.