Why people steal art

25

Dear Artist,

A few years ago a thief looked in a gallery window and saw what he thought was a painting by a relatively expensive, dead artist. Using an accomplice to distract the dealer, he grabbed it and fled. It turned out to be one of mine. I know the disappointment he must have felt because the painting soon appeared in a nearby dumpster. This is an example of someone trying to steal something that might have been successfully fenced in an auction or another gallery. I fooled ’em.

claude-monet_charing-cross-bridge

“Charing Cross Bridge, London” 1901
by Claude Monet (1840-1926)
stolen in 2012, possibly destroyed

The theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Madonna, from the Oslo Munch Museum is a theft of a different stripe. Impossible to resell, these works can only have been stolen because they could be. In a way, it’s good to know that there are people in this world, like artists, who want to see if they can get away with things — to test the limits of their cleverness. Apparently, it’s also got something to do with stealing the magic that is art. British psychoanalyst Darian Leader explains the phenomena in Stealing the Mona Lisa. His book tells of the poor Italian house painter, Vincenzo Peruggia who, in 1911, merely tucked Mona under his smock and put her in the closet of his humble room. Later he confessed he did it not for money but for the love of a woman.

de-kooning_1958_stolen

“Woman-Ochre” 1958
by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
stolen in 1985, recovered 2017

Leader also suggests that a painting needs to be properly stolen in order for it to become an icon and irresistibly desirable to a wider public. Further, as most of the thieves are men, the stealing of female imagery takes the psychoanalyst into some sticky stuff. Leader says, “An image is a human-capturing device.” Apparently, thieves as well as artists know this. But maybe some moneyed connoisseur knows it too and is privately slavering over Madonna and Scream along with a Schnapps and a good cigar in a paneled inner sanctum. Meanwhile his clever hit-men are blowing his cash in a bar. Leader concludes that no one does the big jobs for the money.

Of particular interest in the Mona Lisa case, gallery-goers lined up for years to file past the empty space where the painting once hung. That’s sort of modern — conceptual — when you think of it. One thing I do know is that art makes some people go funny and do crazy things. Like the guy who threw mine into the dumpster.

Vermeer_The_concert

“The Concert” c.1664
by Johann Vermeer (1632-1675)
stolen in 1990, not recovered

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “The Mona Lisa is a magical prize, an amulet to ward off a feeling of insufficiency.” (Craig Burnett)

Esoterica: Stealing, like art itself, is an art. Stealing art is one of the highest of the stealing arts. Books are written and films are made honouring this tradition. To have one’s work stolen is a compliment and can be a big career move. Try to get your stuff stolen.

 

This letter was originally published as “Why do people steal art?” on August 31, 2004.

A History of Loot and Stolen Art: From Antiquity Until the Present Day

Rembrandt_Storm-on-the-Sea-of-Galilee

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“What’s new is this amazingly efficient distribution system for stolen property called the Internet — and no one’s gonna shut down the Internet.” (Steve Jobs)

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25 Comments

  1. Your article filled me with a strange nostalgia. I too, had a painting stolen from an Art Show in the Milner Library. It was a 6X10 Celtic painting of the Lion from The Book of Kells..small but exquisite and just the right size to slide behind a lapel. Though locked onto the grid, two snips of wire cutters would release it. The location of the painting must have been inaccessible to the monitoring camera.
    I was saddened by the vision of someone depriving me of a sale and perhaps even gloating over having acquired it by theft. I “see” it hanging illegally in the collectors home, perhaps beside another such “Thief Trophy”
    Should such collector be among your readers, its not too late to return it.

  2. While I am certainly not in the upper ranking of famous artist, there is a bit of gloating going on within me, after reading this article. Why? Because I too had a painting stolen many years ago. So I’m going to enjoy the moment!

  3. A few years ago an artist friend of mine was thrilled to have a couple of paintings in a show with other artists’ work in a very good gallery. Within days she phoned to tell me there’d been a burglary at the gallery. I immediately asked:
    “Did they take yours?” “Yes,” she replied. “Thank God!” I said. “Why?” she asked, mystified. “Well,” I said, “just imagine the ignominy you’d have felt if they hadn’t!” “Oh crumbs, yes!” she realised. We still laugh about it now when we remember . . .

    • Robert ,Eva,Roberto and Jenny , thanks for sharing your experiences, I too had some works stolen from a gallery and although one could think of this experience as flattering I do not quite see it that way . I always know who buys my work because I love the engagement and the conversations and dialogue with the public and the collectors and at this point in time I really would love to know where my work is and who is admiring / or abusing it at this moment in time ?…

    • This sounds familiar to me. Way back, a fellow member of my mom’s church gave me some money to make rosaries for the church’s silent auction fund raiser.

      So I went out and bought some good, high quality beads.

      And then two of the rosaries were stolen! I was annoyed. They weren’t as expensive as they looked. I simply bought those higher end glass pearl beads, and gold-washed (they looked like 10k) beads and findings. I used wire instead of string. (If I make rosaries, I try to make ones that should last the user’s lifetime.)

  4. Valerie I. VanOrden on

    I had a piece stolen while I was still in highschool. Of a ski boot done in colored pencils on black canson. Then I had about 17 pieces stolen when publishing a medical text book. Yes, what a compliment. Discouraging also.

  5. I had one stolen in Oxford a few years ago. Police were kind but not hopeful and gave various thoughts that it was for drug payment or a student prank. The art loss registry honed in offering publicity and publicity for a price. I am still missing a painting.

  6. While I was painting outdoors a young teenage boy passed by on his bike and stopped to see what I was up to. He was clearly impressed by seeing an artist in action. I was delighted by his reaction and reveled in the rare moment of being thought ‘cool’ in a young person’s eyes. He asked if he could have my painting. I hesitated and pulled back, explaining that I sell my work and can’t just give it away. Later I ran out of paper towels and walked to my car to fetch some more and when I returned the painting was gone! The boy was the only person I saw that day so it is pretty clear he took it. Serves me right I thought for denying someone who truly was amazed by and wanted my art for the unlikely chance that I could sell it. In my memory it was the best thing I did on this weekend excursion and it was true that everything else I worked on was an abysmal failure and was later painted over. Next time, if someone so badly wants my art, I’ll just give it away.

  7. Another artist stole 8 drawings of mine. Ha-ha! Little did she know that they were excellent color Xeroxes of the originals she’d seen a few weeks prior.

  8. This new age of online sales provides even more opportunity for art to be stolen–and I was a recent victim. I sold a large oil on canvas painting (32″ x 48″– a $6,000 order) through a trusted online sales agent (I’d sold numerous paintings with them in the past) to a “client” on the east side of Toronto and shipped it to him via UPS from my place in Durham Region–a little further east. He advised my agent that he had received and loved the painting and the agent provided me with my share of the sale. Several weeks later, our “client” had PayPal/Mastercard reverse the fee saying the painting was never delivered. My agent pursued him personally (having all his contact info) but he never responded. My agent pursued having the fee reinstated through Paypal (providing a perfect paper trail with all documentations) and they, after a month of deliberating said, sorry, take it up with the police. I pursued it with my local, then the Toronto fraud squads who finally, after 9 months of mostly passing it back and forth between detectives, said the thief had disappeared and they closed the case. Now … why did the guy (who I have on a Google screen shot in his yard) steal my painting? Sure, t was a realistic rendering of a huge sunset over Toronto with the CN Tower way off in the distance, but what about the 40 or 50 hours I spent painting it? I’m watching for it to appear online on Amazon, etc. but not too convinced that’s ever going to happen …

    • @Allan O’Marra – Sorry to say, but this is a common fraud. Criminals literally have shopping lists to fill and will use fraudulent credit card info to buy things for their “clients”. When shipped via courier to what was most likely the credit card holder’s real address (to show legitimacy) the criminals then call UPS and arrange to pick the item up at their depot. Once the real card holder sees the fraud charge on his credit card he calls his bank and it gets reversed. I doubt the actual reason given was “not delivered” but rather “fraud charge”. So the police have next to nothing to go on by way of investigating. The “guy in the backyard” you saw on Google was not the criminal. So where does all this fake credit card info come from you ask? Well, on the dark side of the Internet you can buy lists of thousands of stolen credit card info (paying by Bitcoin, of course).

  9. I’ve had 2 works stolen – one in Dallas, and one in Brooklyn. All I get out of this is sadness, and an idea of which works of mine people like the best! I already knew these were 2 very good works – because I knew how much effort I put into making them to begin!
    Sincerely, Brad MM

  10. One of my paintings was stolen when I was in college. It was in an exhibit of student works. It was a very discouraging experience and I still look for it in yard sales and junk stores. Maybe I should be looking in dumpsters.

  11. There are several ways to “steal” art. One day the owner of a gallery where I was showing work asked about a small watercolor which had been brought to him to be framed. I had done two pieces that day. I told him about them. Then he showed me the signature on the piece. Some one had awkwardly tried to remove my signature and had put their name on it. I reclaimed it and still have it in my files with both signatures. I have often wondered how he explained it to the customer.

    • In 1967, in a famous department store in Houston (now defunct), the first computer driven cash register was installed in the book department to track inventory and sales. It revealed the most shoplifted book in our inventory was the Bible. Thought this might add some irony to the question of who and why. We found this to be consistent over the years.

  12. This is timely as I just had a painting stolen from the biggest gallery in Annapolis maryland. I also had on stolen several years ago from the college where I was studying. At least it’s an affirmation that I am doing good work.

  13. I too had a painting stolen when I was in college. It had been chosen by the staff to be included in the paintings that the seniors had done that year. It was an honor. Then it was gone. I was quite upset, but there was no recourse. Now I don’t even remember it. I can’t imagine stealing anything from anyone so stealing something as personal as someone’s painting is still mind blowing to me. I hope they enjoyed it. I doubt there was any value in it at all.

  14. I have this interest in art theft. I don’t know why, I suppose it stems from all things art, but also because of the insight into a ragged corner of the human psyche that is often romanticized and a little blurry. I’ve never had the pleasure, or the pain, of having my work stolen, (I’ve had my identity stolen. That is bad enough.) I give a lot of art away just the same. But this is good material for my collection. Thank you! I do have a great deal of sadness for work that isn’t able to find its way home again. It’s one thing to steal something from the artist, quite another to steal from our collective culture. The Gardner Heist is a good example. So close, and yet so far, and yet continues to be elusive. There is quite a bit of risk living in the world of thievery. So very shortsighted, vulgar. and selfish. Probably the most lucrative and more forgiving aspect of theft is the making of a forgery. But, oh my, how can we know how much of it has permeated our permanent collections and corrupted the canon of art? Alas!

  15. I was blessed to have a painting stolen from a display of fresh work by a variety of nationally known artists. At first I felt angry, but I realized it wasn’t anything special and the thief could have chosen one of the other excellent paintings. Since it was a wet oil, the thief probably ruined their hoodie or shirt trying to hide it.

  16. 1 had 19 stolen when i moved country – sadly it didn’t make my name. At first I was really peed off but later I just hoped that the person whovtook them at least enjoyed them

  17. Someone smashed the window to get into my car, took hundreds of dollars worth of art designated for a show the next day, left my tools, audio equipment, and the bit of cash I kept in there. I was devastated in spite of the fact that they took only the art.
    A friend suggested I should be flattered. Maybe, but I had to scramble up a fresh selection of paintings for that next day’s show.

  18. I had many pieces stolen including a gallery on the 700 block of Johnson Street in Victoria that closed suddenly and apparently left the country. I would like to get my paintings back. Also when my father was ill and we lived in a company house the next door neighbour by the name of Dodds stole the painting of a moose by Jerome Howard Smith who was my father’s uncle. Also had a painting for an exhibit stolen when I was in college – the frame was very expensive for my limited income. Also lost paintings in the Renaissance Gallery when they had a fire – no contacted. after the fire.

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