Art Heist

photos via Peter Dejong for The New York Times

Here’s a little (likely unsurprising) tidbit about me: I love a good art heist. One of my favorite films of all time is The Thomas Crown Affair (the Pierce Brosnan one, also has a phenomenal soundtrack), in which a priceless Monet goes missing. Obviously, I love Oceans 12, the best and most underrated movie in the series, which has some of the most magically conceived art heists of all time (I point your attention to this scene. The Nightfox!). There’s also The Score, with Robert DeNiro and Ed Norton, which focuses on a Montreal museum heist of a French artifact. I just finished reading Steve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty” which winds through the New York art world from the early 90s to present day, and gets into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990. Art heists are fascinating to me, not because I want to undertake one of my own one day (I lack the stealth required to pull off even a surprise birthday party, let alone robbery), but because art is something that is supposed to be shown off, shared, admired, discussed, displayed, enjoyed. And if you go to all the trouble to steal it, you can’t do anything with it. You can’t sell it, you can’t hang it up in your dining room, you can’t even tell anyone you have it. I wouldn’t even be able to enjoy it without overwhelming guilt.

So when I read yesterday that the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam had been the victim of an art heist this week, my mind started spinning. Seven works were taken, including 2 Monet’s, a Gauguin, and a Picasso among others. How did this happen? How does it keep happening? Just two years ago there was a heist at the Paris Musee d’Art Moderne, when a Picasso and  Monet valued at $130 million were taken and have yet to be recovered. Christ, the Mona Lisa was even stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and was missing for 2 years. Here’s a staggering list of famous art heists in the last century.

What do you do with stolen art? Where does it go? I understand the allure (maybe not of Picasso, but I’m not going to get into it other than to say I was 3 years old when, at an exhibit in Washington D.C., I loudly announced “THIS IS DRECK” and stormed out) but I can’t wrap my head around the actual act of stealing something so well-known. Movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, Ocean’s 12, and The Score make it all seem so slick and fabulous, but the reality is much more sinister and grim. At least to me. What do you think? Fascinating or boring?

24 thoughts on “Art Heist

  1. I was never interested in art heists until this post! The way you describe them, seeing and understanding your point of view really intrigues me! Now I want to go see those movies. Netflix here I come.

    1. That’s such a compliment, girl! Thanks! Check out those movies asap, you’ll love them. I haven’t seen The Score in a while, but I’m sure it’s still as awesome :)

  2. I love all those movies too! Also like The Italian job. What would I do with stolen art? Maybe pass it off as a good fake made by myself ;) I couldn’t even decide what piece I would want somebody to steal for me…Can I have an original Warhol and/or an Alexander Calder sculpture please? Or maybe I should go for something smaller and easier to pocket?

    1. Haha, I like that you’re thinking about starting small. I’d go something small, too, so there’s less guilt associated with it ;) Maybe a Rodin sculpture? Haha, I don’t want to give anyone any ideas. I forgot about The Italian Job! That’s such a good movie. The new version of the movie is what made me want a Mini Cooper. xo

  3. I found this story fascinating. How in the world (outside of the movies) do they pull it off…again and again? So yes, fascinating, but also sad. Because like you said, art is meant to be shared and enjoyed and it seems the stingiest of the stingy and the meanest of spirit to keep it all to yourself. That being said, I read a really low-rent, beach read kind of novel about a high class art thief once that was great fun. I’ll try to remember what it was called.

    1. I really don’t get it. Aren’t these people afraid of getting caught? I guess not considering they keep getting away with it. Sigh. You’re right, it’s so stingy. And just mean. If you think of that book title let me know! I love easy reads, and obviously ones about art heists ;)

  4. i think it must stem from some sort of fetish for art. as well as from a definite sense of self-entitlement and power in which a successful heist is, well, i think they just get off on the whole thing. a person like this does it because they are weird and because they think they can – and they do. they have to be rich too, right? to hire people do this or break in these super security museums? so, yes, i love the subject, weirdos fascinate me, especially brilliant ones, with fetishes for fine things. it’s all just so eccentric and intriguing and wrong at the same time. i have also wondered, what’s the point?! i think there was a documentary on netflix a few years ago . . . some guy just had all these paintings sitting in a storage locker for YEARS! crazy. maybe your next book should be about an art heist!

    1. I hadn’t even thought of that weirdo aspect of it! But you’re right, there’s something seriously wrong with someone who has no moral objection to theft of this magnitude. You have to figure they’re getting some power trip out of it, right? I’ll have to check out that documentary, it sounds fascinating! Why would you keep art in a storage locker??

  5. Well, until you mentioned, I didn’t realize I had a fascination with art heists. I’ve seen all those movies you mentioned above, and loved each one. You’re right, what do you do with stolen art? I mean, they pieces are so famous, no one would be able to buy them and properly display them. Christine makes some fascinating points. Perhaps, people who steal art are like computer hackers – They’re in it for the thrill and the challenge.

    1. Haha, as I was writing this post I kept adding movies and stuff to it, realizing I liked a lot more art heist movies than I originally thought. I bet you’re right, that the thieves are in it for the challenge. I’d love to talk to one, one day. Wouldn’t that make a fascinating story!

  6. I’d have to go with fascinating. Part of it is the challenge, the other part could be interpreted as some really strong egoism – Only I can look at this and no one else can. Also, it’s a fairly public crime if it happens and definitely gets press coverage. That publicity may be part of it as well. Is this going to be part of the book you’re writing? Could be very cool.

    1. Ooh, good points, Rooth! The publicity after the fact has to be part of it, the same way serial killers always like hearing about their crimes in the news. That’s so interesting! And I’d love to include something like this in my book, but I don’t know if it will fit. Maybe the next one! ;)

  7. Absolutely Positively 100% Fascinating!! I tell my husband, had I “come from old money”, I would have: studied archeology, become a fencing pro and gone into the cat burglar business!

    1. Yes! In Ocean’s 12, when they’re describing the thief The Nightfox, they say “The bad news is he’s rich, he’s bored, and he’s talented.” There are plenty of things I would do if I had endless amounts of money, and fencing is definitely one of them!

  8. Watching you go up and down the steps leading up to the gallery was infinitely more interesting than what was inside the Museum. The last time I went into a modern museum, I did it for my best friend and her husband who both had to work when the museum across the street from their apartment opened in Chicago. They rushed home and asked for my critique and I told them I want my $.75 back. That would explain how long ago it was!

    1. Haha you’re dating yourself there, mom! Didn’t we go see some modern-ish exhibit recently that we both disliked? I feel like we did! Maybe I dreamed it. Between you and dad there was not a chance in hell I was ever going to like modern art. It’s genetic.

  9. The Scream is always getting stolen isn’t it? Do you think it’s always the same person?

    It is incredibly selfish. But is it any more selfish than Van Gogh’s sunflowers hanging in a boardroom in a Japanese boardroom where only a few people see it? Not really.

    I think there must be an element of thrill that the person knows the own something so illegal, that surely must add to it, the thrill of having got away with it?

    1. That would be so insane if it was the same person! I have to admit, it takes a definite level of talent to pull off something like that. I’d rather they put their talent to better use, but hey. I think if you pay for art, you have the right to hang it wherever you want. Sure, it would be great if everyone kept art in museums for public consumption, but I feel less icky about some foreign millionaires buying it fair and square than someone stealing it. I don’t know.

  10. Thomas Crown Affair is one of my favorites and the soundtrack is absolutely divine! I have had a wierd OBSESSION with Pierce since I was a little girl. He and JFK Jr. will always be two of my first loves:) I actually wrote a paper for a law journal about stolen artwork, but it focused more on works taken during the holocaust and by theives who steal things from archeological sites and the litigation against the current owners (usually museums) to get them back. Believe it or not, the Thomas Crown affair accurately portrays what happens when crazy famous works get stolen. They can’t be sold legitimately so they get sold on the black market and then end up hanging in some sheiks private office where few people will ever get to enjoy them. Totally fascinating topic Erin!! PS – I’ve always thought the guards all have to be in on these heists :)

    1. Yay! I’m so glad someone else appreciates that soundtrack for how amazing it is! Isn’t the movie incredible? Oh Pierce. I can’t claim any life-long obsessions, but how can you not just love him in that movie?! Good choice with him & JFK Jr. They even look similar! Dark hair, dark eyes, fair skin. I’m sensing a theme :) I’d love to read that paper you wrote for the law journal! It sounds right up my alley. There were so many cases of theft during the holocaust, it’s so depressing. Really amazing to know that The Thomas Crown Affair is accurate! We never really hear about the recovery process, only the actual heist, so that’s interesting! And you’re right, the guards HAVE to be in on it. Someone has to slip someone an alarm code along the way. xoxo

  11. Did you also see a few days ago some dude walked up to a million-pound Rothko here in London and graffiti tagged on it in marker? THEN WALKED OUT! Modern art isn’t my thing, (a canvas painted one colour? What?) but I still don’t have the balls to go up to it and scribble on it with a Sharpie. Or steal it.

    Fascinating stuff though, I agree.

    Also, dreck made me laugh- especially coming from a three year old!

    1. I did see that! What is WRONG with people?! I don’t like modern art either but I just keep my distance. That had to have been a power-trip or something, where he just wanted the notoriety. What a jerk that guy is! Are they able to restore it, did the museum say? I hope so! For art’s sake.

      And yes, I was a very, um, blunt child. :)

  12. Or The Scream stolen from Oslo, the most famous Norwegian painting ever. It keeps happening.

    They go to people’s vaults and only the owners can look at them probably. Anyway, I love The Thomas Crown Affair but cannot stomach Ocean’s 11, feels like too much of glorifying crime. BTW I saw some of the costumes from O’s 11 yesterday. And a Gary Oldman one too!

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