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Category Archives: Art Heist
File this under “The Most Ridiculous Thing I’ve Read in Years”, cross-filed under “I Can’t”: a well-meaning janitor at the Museion Bozen-Bolzano, a few hours north of Venice, Italy, dismantled a modern art exhibit because she thought it was trash. Literally.
Artists Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari created an exhibit titled “Where shall we go dancing tonight?”, a room filled with streamers, empty champagne bottles, confetti, cigarette butts, and general detritus, meant to “represent hedonism, consumerism and financial speculation in the 1980s Italian political scene.”1 Obviously. (I don’t get modern art.)
The cleaner was new, and had been told to clean part of the gallery after a book party the night before. Seeing empty champagne bottles and party remnants on the floor, she naturally assumed “Where shall we go dancing tonight?” was her assignment, and proceeded to bag everything up and dump it into recycling bins, perpetrating an accidental art heist. Though, does it count as a heist if she only threw everything in the garbage?
The museum director was able to re-install the entire exhibit by pulling the items out of the trash. A popular Italian art critic, Vittorio Sgarbi, has summed this whole situation up better than I could, saying the janitor’s cleaning spree was entirely justified. “If she thought it was rubbish, it means it was. Art should be understood by everyone — including cleaners. The fact that the museum could simply pick the pieces from the trash bin and put them back together shows you that wasn’t art in the first place.” Mic drop.
Now pardon me while I go giggle for a little bit. And dig up this quote from Steve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty,” my favorite book about the art world: “You want to know how I think art should be taught to children? Take them to a museum and say, ‘This is art, and you can’t do it.’” Some art is just garbage.
Remember this art heist I shared back in March? A refresher: a package, labeled as a Christmas present worth €30, was shipped from Belgium to New Jersey with instructions to be transferred to a temperature-controlled art storage facility. Tipped off by the incongruity of needing to store a “handicraft” in such a high tech environment, Customs Officials seized the package, only to discover it was a 1911 Picasso painting, titled “La Coiffeuse” (“The Hairdresser”) which the Centre Pompidou in Paris had reported as stolen in 2001. The Pompidou can’t nail down a firmer timeframe or suspect, because they only realized the painting was missing when a loan request came in for it and they couldn’t locate it in storage. Three words, guys: routine inventory checks!
The museum sent officials to authenticate the painting in February, and the US Attorney’s office filed a civil complaint to return the painting to France. In typical bureaucratic fashion, the official hand-off didn’t occur until last Thursday, at the French Embassy in Washington:
It’s uncertain if the painting will ever be put back on display at the museum (but here’s hoping!).
You can read more about art heists here.
August 19, 2015 / Art Heist /
When the news broke a few days ago that US Customs had intercepted the delivery of a stolen Picasso in Newark, NJ, my immediate reaction was, “Wait. There was a stolen Picasso I didn’t know about?” On December 18th, a FedEx package arrived stateside from Belgium, bound for a climate-controlled warehouse on Long Island. The shipping label offered few details about the painting’s journey, other than that it was sent by someone listed only as “Robert,” and was described as “art craft/toy” with a declared value of €30. Upon inspection, the painting was seized by Homeland Security Investigations. Last month, French museum officials arrived in New York and, using photographs and historical records, confirmed the painting was indeed a 1911 Picasso, titled “La Coiffeuse” (“The Hairdresser”) which had been reported stolen in 2001.
The 12×18 Cubist painting was bequeathed to the National Museums of France by a former director, and was last on display in Munich in 1998, before being returned to Paris. It was then kept (safely, it was believed) in the storerooms of the Centre Pompidou. It wasn’t until 2001, when a loan request for the painting led to the discovery that the painting was missing. I couldn’t find anything related to the initial theft of “La Coiffeuse” within the National Stolen Art File of the FBI, the Works of Art Database at Interpol, or even the archives of the Centre Pompidou itself. Searches of the archives of the New York Times and Le Monde turned up no results, though the Art Loss Register estimates that there are nearly 1,300 missing Picassos.
The recovery of stolen works of art is certainly cause for celebration, so rarely is there as favorable an outcome when it comes to other art heists; paintings by Picasso, Monet and Matisse stolen from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam in 2013 were burned in an oven in Romania in order to destroy evidence of the theft. James Ratcliffe, Director of Recoveries for the Art Loss Register, told the Guardian: “In our experience, we would consider this kind of discovery to be extremely rare. There must be a large number of similar parcels passing through customs every day. For this one to be spotted is either remarkably good luck…or the result of some kind of tip-off or surveillance.” Last week, the US Attorney’s office filed a civil complaint to return the painting to France. Alain Seban, the president of the Centre Pompidou, “said he was moved by ‘this happy ending’ to the saga of the work’s disappearance and expressed “deep gratitude” to the customs services.” The museum hopes to put the painting back on display to the public quickly, perhaps even as soon as the end of May.
You know who else will be in Paris at the end of May? ME. I’m crossing fingers and toes that “La Coiffeuse” will be there, too.
You can read about more art heists here.
1. This hilarious commercial for…well, I’ll let you watch & figure it out:
I don’t know what made me think of this again after all this time, but the first time I saw this on tv in Paris I laughed out loud. There are several variations on the theme and all are equally brilliant. This is one of the best marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen (though it doesn’t make me want to buy the product, so maybe I should say it is the most entertaining, rather than the best).
2. This beautifully symmetrical photography project:
French architect Gilles Alonso has been traveling around France taking photos of famous, grand, and even simple theaters from center stage. There’s something eerie and yet satisfyingly balanced about these photos that I find just captivating. And I can’t be the only one picking up major Phantom of the Opera vibes from these, can I? Thanks to my brother for sending me this!
3. This fantastic, futuristic clock:
For someone for whom it takes just a half-beat longer to read a face clock than normal (I’m pretty sure I was absent the day we learned this in Kindergarten), the QlockTwo is the answer to my prayers. Minute hands, seconds hands, forget it; blame it on the digital age we live in. Words, however, I can understand, and QlockTwo literally spells out the time in complete sentences, turning time “into a statement.” QlockTwo is 17″ square, can be wall-mounted or free-standing, and comes in a variety of colors, which adhere to the solid wood base with magnets. It doesn’t hurt that it’s typographically stunning, either. At nearly €1500, however, it is also prohibitively expensive.
4. This spot-on illustration from my favorite Tom Gauld:
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I love everything Tom Gauld creates.
5. This reflection of a still-unsolved museum heist:
Keith Meyers/The New York Times
On March 18th, it will have been 25 years since two thieves dressed as police officers broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, bound and gagged two guards in the basement, and “for 81 minutes, brazenly and clumsily cut two Rembrandts from their frames, smashed glass cases holding other works, and made off with a valuable yet oddball haul” including several Degas sketches, Vermeer’s “Concert,” Manet’s “Chez Tortoni. In the intervening quarter century, the paintings have yet to be recovered, and the frames still hang empty on the walls at the museum. This article from the NYTimes details the case –including new (to me) information about paint-chip samples sent anonymously to the FBI for testing, an alleged sighting of one of the Rembrandt’s in a warehouse, and about a hundred possible suspects and leads– and reads more like my type of thrilling fiction than the sad, strange reality it is. Definitely worth a read over the weekend if you love a good art heist.
Speaking of art heists, I have one to share with you on Monday. What are you up to this weekend, kiddos? My mom’s birthday is Sunday and my best friend returned from a whirlwind trip to Italy, so I will be brunching at Parc…twice in two days. What more could I possibly want?
On one hand, I’m excited to share another post in this series (my favorite series, fueling the macabre fascination I have with art heists), but on the other, the simple fact that I have another art heist to share with you means that there was another art heist. Aside from being horribly depressing and scary (I was just at the museum on Sunday, and my heart sunk at the thought of blank walls where masterpieces should be), this particular heist is especially puzzling in its chronology.
Sometime last month, eleven paintings by Cuban painters turned up for sale at an art gallery in Miami. Not suspicious on its own, but art dealer Ramon Cernuda, who purchased a painting by Eduardo Abela (“Carnaval Infantil”, above) was astute enough to realize it had come from Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, and, he surmised correctly, likely not legally. He contacted the museum and turned the painting over to the FBI. It wasn’t until late last week that the museum confirmed indeed roughly 100 works of art had been stolen from storage, “knifed out of their frames in a warehouse. The frames were re-stacked in a way that the canvases’ absence wasn’t readily noticed.” No signs of forced entry were discovered.
Not only did the museum not announce the heist had occurred at all until after the paintings were discovered elsewhere (a detail usually desirable in other art heist cases, where recovery of stolen works is rare), they have yet to release a full list of what exactly is missing. However, in a statement released by the Cuban National Council of Cultural Patrimony, it is believed that “most of the stolen works are from the period called Arte Cubano and are mostly pieces by Leopoldo Romañach.” Oddly, the FBI cannot “confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” though Cernuda has stated The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation “has begun grand jury proceedings in the case.”
Julian Radcliffe, superhero in the recovery of stolen art and chairman of the Art Loss Register, has offered to help track down the remaining missing works. The Art Loss Register has successfully recovered almost 2,000 pieces of stolen artwork since 1991 (what I wouldn’t give to work there!). The problem, Radcliffe, said, is that Cuba may be sensitive about the entire scandal, because “some missing museum items in the past included works expropriated from families that went into exile after the 1959 revolution.”
In 2010, a Virginia woman named Martha Fuqua purchased a small, napkin-sized painting for $7. She liked the frame, she said, but claimed to have no knowledge of art and, despite the name plate beneath the painting displaying “Renoir,” had no inkling the painting could be authentic. It was an Impressionist painting, depicting overgrown brush along the shore of a body of water. Two years later, Fuqua took the painting to an auction house in Alexandria, Virginia, at the urging of her mother, who was convinced the Renoir was legitimate. What a find, right? A $7 Renoir at a flea market!
Well. The auction house did in fact verify it as an authentic Renoir, painted in 1879 and titled “Paysage Bords de Seine,” and valued the small painting, just 5″ x 9″, at close to $100,000. Once the auction house began investigating the painting’s provenance, things got interesting. Before Fuqua could even get comfortable with the idea of cashing in, the Baltimore Museum of Art came forward in September of 2012 and said the painting had in fact been stolen from them in 1951.
“Paysage Bords de Seine” was given to the museum by Sadie May, a collector and benefactor, who bought the painting in Paris in 1926 from the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. She loaned the painting, along with several others, to the museum in 1937. She died in 1951, the same year the painting was reported stolen from the exhibit, and her paintings were willed to the museum after her death.
Initially, the BMA had no record of the painting ever being in their collection. I don’t even want to focus on that impressively stupid lack of oversight, other than to say I sincerely hope they’ve since ramped up security. It wasn’t until an industrious journalist from the Washington Post, named Ian Shapira (a future Pulitzer Prize winner if there ever was one), began digging through their archived files that they came across the loan record from Sadie May. Once the museum had the loan registration number, it was able to sort through more old files and find the original document noting it had been not only loaned to the BMA by Sadie May, but also stolen on November 17, 1951.
The Baltimore police department was able to uncover the original police report as well, in time to put a stop to the scheduled auction Fuqua had hoped would lead to a big payday. The FBI seized the painting while the legal aspects of ownership could be cleared up.
Now, let’s recall that Fuqua claimed to have no understanding of art and was unable to recognize the Renoir as being authentic when she first spotted it at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market. It was only at her mother’s insistence that she took it to be appraised at all. Her mother, Marcia, who, it turns out, was a painter, and had earned a fine arts degree at Goucher College in 1952 and a master’s from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1957. Marcia, who later taught art classes in a studio behind her house, where she taught students to recreate famous works of art, including Renoir…at which her daughter sometimes worked, too.
Since the story broke, multiple people (including Fuqua’s own brother!) came forward claiming to have seen the painting in the Fuqua home as early as the 1980s. There was her mother’s ex-boyfriend, who was quoted in May of 2013 as saying, “She said it came from a museum in Baltimore…She said it was a real Renoir, that she owned a Renoir. . . .She never told me how she acquired it.” There was the family friend, who stopped by the borrow some canvases in the 1990s, and remembers, “All of her paintings on the walls didn’t have frames. But this one had a fancy frame and said, ‘Renoir.’ It had a hangover light on it.” The Harpers Ferry Flea Market story suddenly had trouble holding up.
Marcia Fuqua (who went by Marcia Fouquet professionally, a nod to a French ancestor) died a few months ago at the age of 85. The true story of the Renoir likely died along with her, leaving her daughter and son battling over contesting accounts of the painting’s provenance.
Last Friday, a federal judge for U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed Martha Fuqua’s claim of ownership, and ruled that the painting must be returned to the Baltimore Museum of Art. “The museum has put forth an extensive amount of documentary evidence that the painting was stolen,” the judge told Fuqua and her attorney. “You still have no evidence – no evidence – that this wasn’t stolen.” The judge noted that “a property title cannot be transferred if it resulted from a theft.”
The BMA’s director, Doreen Bolger, said the painting could go on exhibit as early as March, in a show with other pieces from the Sadie May collection. “It’ll be anchored to the wall,” she said. The museum might also provide handouts for exhibit visitors, so they can view the Renoir and read all about the case at the same time. I guess I’ll be taking a trip to Baltimore this spring.
A new scandal has rocked the art world in the past few weeks: contemporary artists Jasper Johns’s former assistant of 25 years, James Meyer, was recently charged with fraud, after it was discovered he’d been secretly taking works from the artist’s Connecticut studio to an unidentified gallery in New York and selling them for a combined total of $6.5 million, of which Meyer kept half (a paltry sum, given that Johns’s “False Start,” above, sold in 2006 for $80 million). Beginning in 2006 and continuing for six years, Meyer is alleged to have taken 22 pieces in all, some of which were not even completed works, and none of which were authorized by Johns for sale. Meyer even went so far as to create “fake inventory numbers for the stolen pieces and forged pages in a loose-leaf binder that served as a register of all of Johns’ artwork,” providing them to the unknown gallery as proof of authenticity.
Meyer and Johns in his studio
Aiming to keep his perfidy a secret for as long as possible, Meyer negotiated with buyers of the pieces an “agreement that the buyer would not exhibit, loan or re-sell the works for at least eight years,” according to a U.S. Attorney. How that did not raise red flags for the mystery gallery or the buyers is beyond me. That is a ballsy move if there ever was one, and here I was thinking betraying someone you worked for for nearly a quarter of a century was as bad as it got.
Earlier this month, Meyer was charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of interstate transportation of stolen property (it should be 22 each, in my lawerly opinion). If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison. Regardless, it’s safe to say he’ll never work in the art world again.
This is by far one of the less flashier art heists I’ve covered; there was no brazen, caught-on-camera theft, no suave criminals dressed as security guards smashing display cases. But it was by far the biggest haul I’ve read about: over 400 (FOUR HUNDRED) drawings, sketches, and watercolors were stolen from the home of Picasso’s step-daughter, Catherine Hutin-Blay, over a two year period between 2005 and 2007. She is the only child of Picasso’s second wife, and inherited her mother and step-father’s house in Vauvenargues, France upon their deaths, along with an unbelievable collection of Picasso’s works. She only became aware of the theft in 2011, when a gallery in Paris contacted for authentication before a sale of one of the pieces. “I went to the filing cabinet to check that the artworks were still there and they were no longer there,” Ms Hutin-Blay told the French newspaper Le Parisien. “That is what triggered everything.”
‘Everything’ now includes a full investigation of the theft, with focus on Freddy Munchenbach, a handyman she hired during the time the pieces are thought to have gone missing. A neighbor, Sylvie Baltazart-Eon (the daughter of Picasso’s late art dealer, apparently everyone who knew Picasso lives in the same town), noticed some pieces of her own collection were missing, too. The women were able to deduce the thing they had in common: the handyman.
Now, I’m sorry, maybe I’m not as worldly or related-to-Picasso, but isn’t a stash of irreplaceable art something you’d check on more frequently than every few years? I know I’m anxious in general, but I sometimes have panic attacks at work about where I stashed a specific scarf at home. I’m not victim-blaming here, but if a gallery in a different city has to alert you to a theft that occurred in your own home more than four years previous, maybe you’re not being careful enough?
All 400 pieces are only valued at 1 to 2 million euro total, a weirdly low sum (that’s only €5,000 per piece as compared to the millions his works usually bring in at auction). To date, 22 of the 400 pieces have been recovered.
July 29, 2013 / Art Heist /
It’s impossible to mention a good Art Heist without bringing up the most expensive private art theft of all time: the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The heist celebrated its 23rd anniversary last week, which coincided with a statement released by the FBI, saying they had new information on the case and were narrowing in on suspects. But let’s back up to the beginning of the story, shall we?
La Sortie de Pesage by Edgar Degas
On the night of March 18th, 1990, at around 1:30am, two thieves dressed as policemen entered the museum through the front door, after being buzzed in by the on-duty security guard. They told the night guard he had a warrant out for his arrest, and ordered him to stand up. The guard moved away from his station, and away from the only alarm button that would have alerted police to what happened next. The thieves handcuffed him and the only other guard in the building, who had walked into the scene minutes later. When the second guard asked why he was being arrested, the thieves replied, “You’re not being arrested. This is a robbery. Don’t give us any problems and you won’t get hurt.” The two men were duct taped to pipes in the basement of the museum, and weren’t discovered until the following morning. The desperation they both must have felt, knowing they were powerless to stop the heist occurring right above them, must have been overwhelming.
“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt Van Rijn
The two thieves spent the next 81 minutes grabbing paintings and drawings off the walls, making two trips to their car to load the stolen artwork. They pulled Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait” off the wall but couldn’t remove it from its wooden frame, so it was tossed to the floor. They had more luck with two other Rembrandt works, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” (the latter actually has a fascinating provenance debate over it, as the Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam does not believe it to be a legitimate work). They snatched five Degas drawings, a Vermeer (one of only 34 in existence!), “Chez Tortoni” by Manet, an ancient Chinese sculpture, and a finial from a Napoleonic flag. Thirteen pieces in all, totaling over $500 million dollars. See the full list on the on the museum’s website.
The museum left the empty frames of all stolen works on display.
It’s almost eerie, isn’t it?
In May of 2012, a man in Connecticut had his home raided by the FBI in connection with drug charges, but their real aim was to search his property for any of the stolen artworks, as the statute of limitations on the heist had expired. Their search came up empty. The man’s lawyer later contended his client had been set up to sell drugs by the FBI as a ruse to search his home. I love idiots.
Last week, on the 23rd anniversary, the FBI made allusions to having identified those responsible for the theft, and/or in possession of the stolen pieces. The FBI believes the pieces were brought to Connecticut and the Philadelphia (!!) area after the heist. “‘It’s likely that over the years, someone – a friend, a neighbor or relative – has seen the art hanging on a wall, placed above a mantle or stored in an attic,’ Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, told a press conference.” My question is, who sees a stolen Rembrandt in their uncle’s study and just assumes everything is kosher? I would rat out anyone, regardless of relation, when it came to stolen art. Also there’s a $5 million dollar reward. So that helps.
The scary and part is that in the intervening 23 years, the paintings and pieces could have suffered immeasurable damage from mishandling and improper storage, or worse, TOUCHING. Anthony Amore, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s chief of security, said in the FBI press conference, “We simply want to recover our paintings and move forward. Today marks 23 years since the robbery. It’s time for these paintings to come home.”
Thank you to everyone who sent me articles about these new details in the story: Christine, Lauren, Theresa, and Jess.
Not quite our typical Art Heists, though this does fit the bill: a new film by Danny Boyle called “Trance” is set to be released in a few weeks, and the premise is pretty intriguing. James McAvoy stars as a young auction house assistant, hired to steal a Goya by Vincent Cassel. I could stop right there and already be convinced to see it based on the overwhelming eye candy the movie will provide (and I ain’t just talking about the artwork). During the heist, he’s hit on the head and suffers amnesia, meaning he has no idea where he’s stashed the painting. Cue Vincent Cassel’s gang getting understandably pissed off. There’s some hypnotherapy, a lot of violence, and a lot of neon colors. That’s code for: I don’t know how I feel about it, but I’ll still likely end up going to see it.
Here’s the trailer:
What do you think? It seems a lot darker and heavier than the quirky Art Heist stories I’ve been posting. Maybe there’s a much seedier underside to all these stories I just never thought about? The movie will have a limited release in early April. Will you see it?