Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Observations on Art 10.16

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge
I don't think I have ever written about an art heist before but last night's was a major topic of conversation today. I want to say from the start that, contrary to a twitter rumor spreading from Sweden, I had nothing to do with it. Around 3 AM thieves broke into Rotterdam's Kunsthal Museum and made off with seven paintings worth in excess of $100 million. They entered through the back of the museum, swiped the paintings, and were gone when police arrived just five minutes after the alarm sounded. This was one of the topics discussed, the growing trend of museums using just electronic security. It may save money but in the long run it just isn't enough as last night proved.

The Kunsthal may have state of the art electronic surveillance and alarms but it has no "down time" security officers. In contrast over half of The Louvre's staff of 2,000 are security related and the Museum of Modern Art just completed a huge security upgrade in anticipation of showing Edward Munch's The Scream beginning next week.
The Scream was sold in May for $120 million. Granted these two museums are in a league all their own but is one guard too much to ask?

Whatever the case the thieves had exceptionally good taste. The haul was made up of Picasso's Harlequin Head (1971), Monet's Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge (both 1901), Matisse's Reading Girl in White and Yellow (1919), Paul Gauguin's Girl in Front of Open Window (1898), Meyer de Haan's Self-Portrait (1890), and Lucian Freud's Woman with Eyes Closed (2002). I don't understand the final one but than I had nothing to do with it. The Kunsthal has no collection of its own, all the paintings were on loan from the collection of the Cordia family.

When I write about art I like to try and teach something and here is the lesson for any budding art thieves out there. As I said the seven paintings are worth over $100 million but that is an auction/insurance figure. As far as the current 'owners' of the works are concerned they are all but worthless unless they have some totally immoral collector already lined up. That is always a possibility but more in the realm of Hollywood than in the real art world. Also unlikely, but still possible, is that the thieves will try and ransom the paintings through the insurers. One thing is certain, they wont be turning up at a flea market.

If not recovered quickly the paintings may not be seen for generations if ever. Over twenty years ago 13 paintings, including two Rembrandts, at the time worth $500 million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. The museum offered a reward of $5 million for the paintings safe return, as always worded so that the thieves themselves aren't eligible to collect. None have ever been recovered in what is still the largest art heist in history.

And no, I was only 10 years old at the time.

10/17 update - There is a good article in today's New York Times that includes this; "Marc Masurovsky, a historian and an expert on plundered art in Washington, noted the possibility that the theft was "a contract job," adding: "These works were picked out. Could it be they had been targeted well before the theft, and the exhibit was the opportunity to strike?"'