Tags: Rare | Stolen | museums | Picasso

Rare Works Stolen at Alarming Rate

Wednesday, 08 April 2015 10:14 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Art robberies and smuggling took center stage again this month with the Italian police’s confiscation from an Italian frame maker in Rome of a $16.33 million Cubist painting titled "Violin and Bottle of Brass" (1912) by Spanish master Pablo Picasso and an ancient Roman statue worth $8.71 million.

The frame maker claims he has had the Picasso and Roman statue since 1978, having been given the pieces as a payment for a frame restoration. He alleges he did not know they were stolen objects.

Picasso is one of the hottest artists whom thieves and smugglers are attracted to because his work brings top dollar in legitimate and clandestine sales. Christie’s N.Y. estimates that Picasso’s painting "Les Femmes d’Alger" (1955) might break the world’s most expensive auctioned painting record, topping Francis Bacon’s record-breaking 2013 sale of $142.2 million for "Three Studies of Lucian Freud."

"Les Femmes d’Alger" was part of the celebrated Victor and Sally Ganz 1997 Christie’s auction where it sold for $31.9 million to a London dealer on behalf of a wealthy client, and because it most likely will sell for over $140 million this year, thieves and hustlers all over the world will be anxiously looking for the next Picasso masterwork they can heist.

It’s all about the money, unfortunately, and most collectors and museums rarely insure fully or guard items of this value because it is too costly to do so.

During the last few months, several stolen Picassos have been recovered by authorities. The artist's former electrician, Pierre Le Guennec, and his wife were found guilty of possessing 271 stolen Picasso artworks that Le Guennec claimed Picasso gifted to him. The Picasso family said that is not true.

A small Cubist Picasso painting stolen over a decade ago was recently recovered through New Jersey customs. The sender identified the piece at customs as a $37 "art craft" gift. In December 2014, Picasso’s plate "Visage aux Mains" ("Face with Hands," 1956) valued at $85,000 was brazenly stolen from Leslie Smith Gallery’s booth at Art Miami!

On Feb. 24, 2006, Picasso’s "The Dance" was stolen from the Museu da Chácara do Céu and has not been recovered. On Dec. 20, 2007, around 5 a.m., three men invaded the São Paulo Museum of Art and took the "Portrait of Suzanne Bloch" by Picasso. It was recovered and returned to the museum.

On June 12, 2008, three armed men broke into the Pinacoteca do Estado Museum, São Paulo, with a crowbar and a carjack and stole "The Painter and the Model" (1963) and "Minotaur, Drinker and Women" (1933) by Picasso. On May 20, 2010, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris reported the overnight theft of Picasso’s "Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois." The list goes on and on.

Hollywood films like The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) glamorize art thefts by depicting a handsome, debonair, wealthy thief as a charming, educated con man who easily dupes museum officials and authorities, all in the name of excitement and fun. Johnny Depp’s newly released caper "Mortdecai," explores a rich art dealer’s quest to find a Nazi painting that will lead him to more expensive treasurers, and the seriousness of the plot is dampened down by Depp’s humorous portrayal of the greedy dealer.

More serious films like "The Monuments Men" that reflect real-life Nazi loot-finding adventures during World War II usually are box office flops because they aren’t sexy, alluring, and dangerous who-done-its. To date, no film to our knowledge has explored the inner-workings of a real-life thief who pulls off multimillion-dollar art heists of Picasso work, but I’m sure one will surface, sooner or later.

It almost seems futile to steal $10-140 million Picasso masterworks these days, if the robber’s intention is to sell it to the highest bidder. No stolen masterwork can be advertised or sold on the open market, thus a thief would either steal for himself and for the excitement of getting away with such a heist, or he would be contracted to steal for a specific client who intends to keep the possession hidden.

No matter what the reason is, it’s not a good enough excuse for robbing world treasures. Because most museums cannot afford to insure their most valuable items, stricter laws and penalties should be mandatory for anyone who is caught with stolen treasurers.

Statutes of limitations, which usually last 11 years for stolen art, should be abolished, so that thieves — like those who robbed the Gardner Museum in Boston — have to face charges when they’re caught.

As long as statutory laws erase punishment and prison time, it still is a very lucrative game to rob homes, museums, and institutions, hold the art 11 years, and get off scot free! It isn’t just, nor does it make sense, but it’s lucrative and it keeps the cycle of robberies circulating.

Patricia Jobe Pierce is a freelance writer, art historian, art dealer-consultant, certified AAA appraiser, public speaker, photographer and American art authenticator for museums, auction houses and collectors. She graduated from Boston University with a BFA in 1965, is owner and director of Pierce Galleries, Inc. in Nantucket and Hingham, Mass., and is author of many works, including, "Art Collecting & Investing: The Inner Workings and the Underbelly of the Art World." For more of her submissions, Click Here Now.


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Picasso is one of the hottest artists whom thieves and smugglers are attracted to because his work brings top dollar in legitimate and clandestine sales.
Rare, Stolen, museums, Picasso
Wednesday, 08 April 2015 10:14 AM
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