Why people steal art


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.


Edvard Munch

The recent 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.

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.

Best regards,


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.


Stolen paintings


by Edvard Munch


“The Scream”
by Edvard Munch


“Mona Lisa”
by Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519)








Thefts have not helped her
by Pnina Granirer, Vancouver, BC, Canada


mixed media on window shade
by Pnina Granirer

According to your advice of trying to get one’s art stolen in order to achieve fame, I should have been quite famous by now. I had my paintings stolen from shows twice, but it did not help my reputation a great deal. I took it as a compliment, though, and was quite flattered that someone who could not afford the works loved them so much that they stole them. Come to think of it, it is more flattering to have one’s work stolen when one is not famous, since there is no gain except the personal pleasure in the art. Another time I had the opposite experience from yours. I had thrown a painting to the garbage and someone took it out, framed it and hung it on their wall. It was my former landlord, who later confessed.


Gallery takes its share
by William Band, Georgetown, ON, Canada


original painting
by William Band

I was in a group show at a small art centre with a number of other participants. When I arrived at the gallery I found one of my paintings was stolen and the other was still on the wall. My immediate reaction was, “What is wrong with this painting, why did they not take it? Was it not good enough?” I still regret loosing the other piece of work. Then came the cruncher, after about 8 weeks we got the insurance money less the 20 percent. I reminded the gallery that they did not sell the work, it was stolen. Unfortunately they still insisted that they get their share.


Charity buyer made her own prints
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA

One of my pieces came up in a fundraiser and two women went back and forth to obtain it. Several months later the woman that had bought it told me she sold the painting to the other woman that had been bidding. She said she needed the money. Also that she had made prints of it, so she could still have the image. She said she made two prints and did I want the other print. I told her yes. I received a call from the art society telling me about this woman who was making prints. She was informed several times by the art society and myself of this wrongdoing. This she never grasped. She too is an artist, but still sees nothing wrong in her actions. Then I find out that the copies are made at the printshop that makes my Giclees. I had a talk with them. They were told by the woman that she had my permission to have copies made. The painting is of an old barn, snowed in, in the twilight, named Abandon.


We’re all thieves
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AK, USA


“The Library”
watercolor on black paper
by Warren Criswell

I picked up on that line too: “An image is a human-capturing device” — especially when the human is an artist. First we’re captured and then we try to capture what captured us! I am constantly ambushed and taken prisoner by some random arrangement of objects or bodies. A friend of mine, an abstract painter, was recently captured by a studio accident — a part of one painting stuck onto another — which started him on a whole new method of working. Another friend who works in charcoal from boxes of clippings told me this: “There is something erotic for me about searching through decontextualized images. I possess them just as they had ‘captured’ me when I fell upon them by accident in browsing magazines and newspapers.” Another artist I know is seduced by the contrast between the inside and the outside of his house.

But we’re all thieves, really, trying futilely to steal these visual moments out of the rush of time. The result, a static object, is never that living image but something else entirely. Art is that passionate failure.


Had to paint stolen painting again
by Michelle Gallagher, Portland, OR, USA

I had a watercolor painting stolen off the wall in my high school art class. It was a shock to have that happen, but I was met with even a greater disappointment when my teacher required me to execute an identical painting in order to be graded for the assignment. It added insult to injury because I thought she had already graded the missing piece, but she said she had not recorded it and did not remember seeing it, hence it was my responsibility to prove my grade by repeating the work. I think it’s pretty awful having your painting stolen and winding up in the trash, but it’s also demeaning having to repaint one just to prove you did it in the first place.


Not dead enough
by J. Bruce Wilcox, Denver, CO, USA

During the mid-’90s my friend Ted purchased one of my fiber pieces, and then relocated from Denver to San Diego. One day, after he’d been there for a while, someone broke into his apartment and stole my art quilt. It had to be someone who’d actually seen it hanging there, but he never discovered who and the piece was never recovered. It is a very odd feeling to know that someone wanted something so much that they would do that, without consulting if maybe they could just get one of their own somehow. Especially since I wasn’t that famous then, or that dead either!


Stolen painting gets top marks
by Sheena Lott


“Cinque Terre, Vernazza”
oil on canvas, 5 x 8 feet
by Sheena Lott

I was a student in university under your friend the late and great Toni Onley. A large part of my term mark was an oil painting which I painstakingly worked on for four months. I went to pick it up from the drying rack at the back of the lecture room to present it and to my horror it was gone. It did have a happy ending because Toni said to me, “If it is good enough for someone to steal, I will give you an A+ mark.” That was very encouraging. [students don’t try this]My second stolen painting was from a very crowded restaurant on a Saturday night. The brazen thieves just casually took it off the wall and walked off with it. Nobody questioned them.


Burning banners made history
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada



I was commissioned by a local business association to create the image that would be on the street banners of Vancouver’s most famous shopping street. They went up and I remember watching them hang the first one at about 3:00 a.m. one morning. I was thrilled.

This was during the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Vancouver Canucks team was in the finals with the New York Rangers. Like all Vancouverites, we were glued to the series. The Canucks lost with the final score in the final game in the final second. Segue to what looked like a battle zone on TV. Riots had broken out. There were storefronts being smashed in, cars overturned and herds of raging people jumping up and down on vehicles. They were also torching my banners. They were going up in flames like they were doused in gasoline. I was sitting there with my mouth open as my banners had only been up for a couple of days. I had friends calling me from all over the world telling me they saw my banners being torched on CNN.

The riots subsided and the city went back to a sense of normal behavior and the missing banners were replaced and made it safely through the rest of the six-month run. We took them down and cleaned them and re-stitched the ends. We had a sale and sold them for $100.00 each, donating all the money to A Loving Spoonful to feed people with AIDS. I remember thinking, who is going to want one of these banners after they have been on the street for six months? We sold 187 banners in eleven minutes. They also became the most famous and remembered banners in Vancouver’s history.


Two more missing paintings
by Roger Cummiskey, Dublin, Ireland


Stolen paintings

Earlier this year two of my paintings went walkabouts at the end of an exhibition. They were neither Munch’s, DaVinci’s nor from the Beit collection. They were in fact just two very simple oil paintings that I had done as an experiment but which may or may not have had merit. I did not report the loss to the police and it is now six months later and the organizers of the exhibition cannot come up with any ideas either. I did not make an insurance claim, as that would simply ensure that my premiums would go up. Maybe this is why crime pays! My best thoughts at this time are that they were stolen for the ornate antique gold frames. If you or any of your readers come across them then let me know and I will arrange for a bottle of Chateau de Plonk to be picked up at their nearest wine shop.


Potentially interesting experiment
by Martha Kennedy, Santa Fe, NM, USA


“Yellow Plate with Beet”
oil pastel
by Martha Kennedy

This summer I had a call from the police in Espanola, NM — two of the paintings purchased by the Community College there had been stolen. They needed photos for the investigation. What an odd feeling to have one’s work stolen. I wondered if I should be flattered, since no other artist’s work was taken. The police thought they were stolen for drug money.

I’m still trying to figure out how this could benefit me. Should I have put out a press release? There has been a lot of art stolen in the Santa Fe area this summer, and it has been getting a lot of press. Would they have put my paintings up there with the tens of thousands of dollars that some of the others cost, such as those Georgia O’Keeffes? Would collectors start storming into my shows, buy all my work? It may have been an interesting experiment.


Return of cosmic energy
by Sally Pollard

Last year in our art group my friend Ellie had a fist full of her greeting cards lifted. She was shocked but was grateful it wasn’t an original piece and tried to take it as a backhanded compliment. She is always giving prints of her wildlife art for various causes. The next show she sold a fresh painting for $1500, a big price around here with no commissions to split. I think her lack of paranoia and good spirit probably came back to benefit her generous nature. Is it only a matter of cosmic energy, what goes around comes around? Theft hurts, but Ellie refused to let it get her down.


Stealing money from artists?
by BJ Haugstad, Hayfield, MN, USA


“Prairie Flower”
original oil on linen
by BJ Haugstad

I was contacted by a company on line called art-exchange.com. They want to sell my work. I am not familiar with them. I was wondering if you knew of them or their reputation.

(RG note) Several artists have asked about this one. It looks to me like an expensive location with a limited group of artists, some of them fairly amateur. From what I’ve heard they don’t do too much business, but I could be wrong. I can’t see them having much traffic — not a great deal of content on the site. Annoying pop-ups too which apparently deter shoppers. If you give it a try and it works, let me know and I’ll write a letter praising them and toasting your success.


Another Art-exchange inquiry
by Elfrida Schragen


“Juan de Fuca Strait”
original painting
by Elfrida Schragen

I was recently the recipient of an email from art-exchange.com. They are offering to work at selling my paintings for an initial set-up fee (500$US for 40 pictures) and then 10% of everything that is sold. I can see that one could easily pay the initial fee and then never hear from these folks again. On the other hand they say they sell to interior designers and have done well over their four-year life span as a company. Have you heard of this company and if so what? What are your thoughts on this? I am guessing they logged onto my web site through my link with you, so perhaps other readers have experience with this company also.

(RG note) The testimonials they have on line are general, not too convincing, and offer no way to follow up. Again, ask them to send you a bundle of happy testimonials with real addresses attached. If they have anything to offer, they will. Needless to say I’m always hopeful that artists will report success from these sorts of sites.


Vendorpro inquiry
by Annette Waterbeek


“Western landscape”
original oil painting
by Annette Waterbeek

Have you ever heard of Vendor Pro or do you know anybody who has dealings with them? They claim to wholesale art to dealers. I have asked them to put me in touch with some of their successes and they have replied that it is “against our policy to release information of registered artists to the general public.”

(RG note) There are a few candle-makers claiming success on their site. The candle business is different than the painting business. Just send Vendor Pro another note asking if they will please send the names of five fine artists who are having success with them. My guess is that they won’t and they can’t, and if I’m wrong, I’ll eat my Bentley. These sorts of sites tend to prey on creators who can’t find outlets. The main thing to remember is that if an artist’s fine art is not selling in brick-and-mortar galleries, it’s not likely to sell on the net either. The best thing an artist can do is to have a simple, stand-alone site—one that empowers the agents you do have. I’m not trying to be smart here, but my own site is loved by my dealers because they regularly get click-through action from it. Putting their own spin to it, some artists have lately seen fit to build sites with a similar concept. A further tip: You’ll get more visitors if you list on our Premium Artists page.


Unregulated commodity
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA

Having had a beauty of a painting stolen, the feeling of violation is not a pleasant one. Fortunately I had 3 x 4 inch transparencies of the painting and will be able to make high quality prints.

Now, in the digital age we are fortunate as we are able to capture our paintings digitally, burn CDs and keep a record of our work quite easily. I suggest that if one’s work is of value on the market and to the individual artist, that they record every painting. And as a business aside, only sell your paintings with the caveat that you, the artist retains all copyrights to the image for use in every known and as yet unknown medium, that the copyright is your property, the property of your estate upon death, your heirs’ property thereafter, and blah, blah, blah. Get an attorney and write up the sales contract. We are in the age of property and intellectual property as well. This is the object/image issue. The artist sells the object, the painting, but owns the image, the intellectual property or idea. I call all this my Van Gogh Theory. Often an artist’s work is obscure during his lifetime, but, upon death he suddenly becomes “noticed” and his work can rocket in value. If his estate, be it ever so modest, owns the copyrights, his heirs shall reap the benefits should he then become sought after. Death is a crumby way to get PR but that’s what happens.

The smarmy world of art dealers, forgeries and thieves was the subject of a script I wrote about Andy Warhol, a husband/wife combo of dealer and forger, a collector who dies when his business gets in financial trouble and he uses his collection as collateral for a bank loan, dies and an insurance investigator all converge in a thriller. It’s still a work in progress and great fun.

Having always been interested in the shady side of the art world, forgeries, mysterious disappearances off the back of the truck, strange discounts, etc, and the fact that paintings of value are an unregulated commodity akin to non-liquid assets and often more valuable, the art arena provides for big shenanigans with less than honorable art dealers, of which there is no lack in the art market world.

So, when one thinks about paintings as unsecured commodities, naturally thieves and whores are right there as they always are around any “cash” business. So I’m not surprised by the thought provoking idea that “‘An image is a human-capturing device.’ Apparently thieves as well as artists know this.” I totally agree and would submit that for a painter of an occasional nude, I often feel a certain tenderness/love for the subject as I try to “capture” their special beauty and spirit in paint. It is a romance with the subject and the canvas, and it’s very seductive.


Work stolen by gallery
by John Rocheleau


“Cottonwoods 3”
oil on canvas
by John Rocheleau

My work was stolen by the owners of the former “Gallerie Le Monde” in Scottsdale, Arizona. The owners decided it would be fun to close up shop and take all the art with them, then open up in some other state under a different name (apparently they had done it before). Not at all the romantic notion of the “art thief.” I never saw the work again. I only hope that the final owners find inspiration and pleasure in them. A lesson learned is all I reaped from the experience; sadly, no notoriety.









pastel painting
by Robert Maniscalco, Grosse Pointe, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.

That includes Doug Nealy of Surrey, BC, Canada who wrote, “People have been stealing my photo art for years using the images in their hard drives for advertising, web sites, or screen savers. They must like it.”

And also Carmeline Kitchens of Tampa, FL, USA who wrote, “I own a small motel and have put some of my paintings in the rooms and no one has stolen them. People have stolen towels, rugs, screws from the door hinges, etc. etc. but none of my art!”

And also Bobbi Dunlop of Calgary, AB, Canada who wrote, “Art has made me a little crazier than the average person at times but I wouldn’t have put your work in a dumpster. Perhaps this thief was an exception — not really crazy. I will try to get my stuff stolen.”

And also John Bonanno of Hiram, ME, USA who wrote, “I must admit I had a certain feeling of flattery when I heard that one of my paintings had been stolen from the buyer’s home. It turned out that the thief was quite insane.”

And also Judy Chittenden of UK who wrote, “I was watching a news report on this theft and, according to one of the team who led the search for the painting the last time it was stolen, high profile art is regarded as collateral by organized crime. This rather negates the thought that theft is in any way an art form.”

And also Michael Chesley Johnson of Timberon, NM, USA who wrote, “Thieves steal famous pieces with not the intention of selling them but for making fakes and then selling these to folks wealthy (and unethical) enough to buy the stolen pieces. Of course, these clients don’t realize they’re getting fakes.”

And also Darcy Gerdes of Idylwilde, CA, USA who wrote, “A client had a painting of mine stolen right from his home — along with the VHS recorder, stereo, TV, etc. Haven’t seen it in years. Could be in a trash bin or could be on their wall. I’ve never understood why. Except, perhaps they just liked the painting.”




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