Last June, a man woke up and decided, “What the hell! I’m going to steal some art today!” He walked into the Venus Over Manhattan gallery on the Upper East Side, took a Dali watercolor valued at $150,000 off the wall, put it in a shopping bag, walked out, and promptly had a panic attack. The entire heist was caught on the gallery’s security camera.
Clearly whoever was supposed to be watching the security tapes has been fired.
The master thief, identified as Phivos Istavrioglou, 29, recovered enough from the shock to board a plane back to his native Athens, only to have such intolerable Thievery Remorse (similar to Buyer’s Remorse, only with less morals) as to roll the painting in a packing tube and mail it back to the gallery from a fake address in Europe. Authorities were able to identify his fingerprints on the painting and packaging from a water bottle he stole from a Whole Foods a year prior. COME ON. (Though I think it’s interesting to note here that in the span of a year, Phivos graduated from water bottles to surrealist paintings. That’s like, highly advanced kleptomania.)
Anyway, the gallery owner tricked him into returning to the states for a job interview; they feigned interest in hiring him as a consultant, AND HE FELL FOR IT. It must be so amazing to be in this guy’s head; the world is full of nothing but possibilities! FBI Agents stopped him at JFK on Saturday and arrested him. He appeared in court yesterday where he pleaded not guilty to grand larceny.
In this week’s edition of Dumb Thieves Bungling Art Heists, today we have a story all the way out of South Africa, where last November a group of three art enthusiasts, posing as a teacher guiding around two students, stole five pieces from the Pretoria Museum. The art was estimated at around $2 million dollars, with works by prominent South African artists including Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto, Maggie Laubser, and Hugo Naude. They initially stole a 6th, more valuable painting, “Two Malay Musicians” by Stern, only to THROW IT ON THE CURB out front of the museum when it didn’t fit in their car. I can’t even. If you are committed enough to holding a museum at gunpoint to make off with stolen art, at least have the common sense to measure the backseat of your hooptie before absconding with the goods. Amateurs! Also, who throws art on the ground?!
Four out of the five paintings were recovered in (get this) a cemetery 700 miles away in Port Elizabeth just a few days later. Because obviously. I hope police can fingerprint the paintings now that they’ve been recovered because I’d really love to know who tried to pull this off. Also I want to ridicule them a little bit.
I need to first thank Lauren for this post (again) because she sent me yet another email tipping me off to more art drama. I LOVE ART DRAMA, in case you hadn’t figured that out yet. My new favorite website? Art World Daily’s “Controversy” section. Sadly, it’s not all about heists, but there is plenty of juicy “scandal” on there to keep me occupied for days.
So, today’s order of business: Two people were sentenced in Miami after attempting to sell a stolen Matisse (why is it always a Matisse these days??), “Odalisque in Red Pants,” to undercover FBI agents. Rookie thief mistake. The painting, which is now valued at around $3 million, was stolen back in 2002 from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas, Venezuela, and a forgery was hung in its place. I don’t know who they think they were fooling:
Matisse’s “Odalisque in Red Pants” (L) and the forgery (R)
Even though the “sting” happened last year (and the heist itself occurred over a decade ago), they weren’t formally sentenced until this week. Each of the suspects is serving over 2-3 years in jail and 3 years supervised probation after their release for transportation and possession of a stolen painting. FBI Officials seized the painting the operation, and have yet to give it back to the museum. Last summer, photographer Violette Bule staged a protest (though I don’t think you can call it a protest if it’s a bunch of topless women) out front of the museum in Venezuela, mimicking the woman in the painting, demanding its return to the museum.
Kudos to these women. I don’t think I would be so brazen, not even in the name of art.
Anyway, I don’t know why the painting hasn’t been returned yet. It’s not ours to keep and it certainly doesn’t make us look great if we do. I’m happy it’s been recovered, definitely, but I wouldn’t say this story is over.
My love of art heists is getting a workout. Thanks to an email from Lauren (one line, no subject, body: “Did you hear about the Matisse?”) I found out there was a happy ending to an art heist that occurred over 20 years ago at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm: Henri Matisse’s “Le Jardin” has been recovered by an art dealer in the UK! Look how thrilled the man holding it looks. Dude, you should be grinning from ear-to-ear like someone just slipped you an Ecstasy tablet. Back in 1987, an unknown thief/art-enthusiast broke into the museum with a sledgehammer (Thor-complex) and took off with the 1920 oil painting. It resurfaced recently when it was brought it to be appraised by Charles Fine Art Gallery in England, and was checked against the Art Loss Register (how badly do you want to browse through that bad boy?).
Can you just imagine where the painting has been in the last 25 years? How many hands it’s changed, how many cities it’s been to? How does a painting stolen from a museum in Sweden end up at a dealer in England without someone along the way wondering where it came from? You have to assume the person who brought it in wasn’t aware of it’s shady history, or why would they risk getting in trouble? So at some point, it had to have been sold to someone else. No one is going to be arrested, according to what I’ve read; the time for prosecution has passed and everyone is just happy the painting is back. I am completely fascinated by these types of things, as I’ve mentioned before. Now all I want to do is go home and watch The Thomas Crown Affair.
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?