Artful Crimes

Curators call it the Lost Museum, a vast fictional place that houses all the artwork ever stolen
Photograph by Thomas StruthCourtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Galerie Max Hetzler, BerlinLouvre 1, Paris (1989)

Rembrandts, Picassos, Renoirs, and Edvard Munch’s The Scream hang on the walls. The halls bustle with activity, fed by an ever-increasing flow of art and antiquities snatched from the world’s galleries and museums. This fantastic site has its real origins in the multi-billion-dollar global art-theft business. Much of the bounty is disappearing into private collections, as police fall behind in the battle against con men, thieves, and collectors willing to pay almost any price to own a work of genius.

Lawyer Bonnie Czegledi sits in a brightly coloured office that doubles as an art gallery, sorting through lists of stolen art strewn across the table in front of her. The lists detail works looted from historic sites across the world, pieces taken from occupied France or lost during the Russian Revolution — thousands of paintings, sculptures, etchings, and drawings. Czegledi has many theories about why you might want to steal one of these works of art: because you fell in love with it; because it is fragile and needs your protection; because if you steal just one more your collection will be complete; because you can reap a ridiculous profit; because you loathe the snooty cultural establishment; because strolling out of a museum onto a crowded street with a stolen painting under your arm is an adrenaline rush like no other; because hanging a stolen work on your wall will impress your rich friends. The Toronto lawyer, whose practice is devoted entirely to art theft, could go on. After all, so much art is being stolen that according to UNESCO, The Greatest Show You’ve Never Seen, as insiders call it, is now worth an estimated $6 billion annually — making it the second most-profitable criminal enterprise in the world, after drug trafficking.

It’s not just Rembrandts and Picassos that are attracting thieves. Following the US invasion of Baghdad in 2003, looters sacked the Iraqi National Museum, removing a staggering array of Mesopotamian antiquities. Many of the pieces, including a priceless 5,000-year-old life-sized head of a Sumerian woman carved from marble, have disappeared only to be found on the doorsteps of private collectors, museums, and antique shops. In June, some tiny but valuable Babylonian artifacts reached the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto when a man arrived at the office of Dan Rahimi, the museum’s executive director for development, carrying what he believed to be six 3,000-year-old cylinder seals once used to roll imprints onto flat surfaces. These two-inch-long symbols of authority, carved out of marble or shaped from clay, are worth up to $100,000 (US) each.

The holder of these Iraqi treasures told Rahimi that a third party had purchased them on eBay. Rahimi, a trained archeologist who has worked extensively in the Middle East, was suspicious about the true origins of the cylinder seals, and their presence in Canada raised a troubling question: with art theft so rampant, what should prospective buyers do when the ownership of a work cannot be clearly established? The answer seems simple enough: don’t accept it. But in the world of art, where genius, money, and ego collide, morality can quickly fall by the wayside. Rahimi is always on guard against people who attempt to create a paper trail of legitimacy surrounding a disputed piece by loaning it to the rom. After carefully examining them, Rahimi determined that four were original and two were fakes. “The rom was absolutely not interested them,” he says.

Such a decision represents a minority choice among collectors, who seem more than willing to buy stolen works — a fact reflected in the number of paintings posted on Interpol’s Most Wanted art list. Among the recently stolen items: Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Madonna of the Yarnwinder ($65 million), dated 1501; Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting Head of a Little Girl ($300,000), stolen from the famous Paris auction house Tajan; and five Italian Renaissance bronze plaques valued at $1.1 million lifted from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum last December — the third robbery there in three months.

Some blame the growing number and brazen nature of the robberies on unprepared gallery owners and museum administrators. Incredibly, in 2004, at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, two armed and masked men ripped Edvard Munch’s nineteenth-century painting The Scream ($88 million) off the museum wall in the middle of the day and in full view of gallery visitors.

In the United States, the fbi has created a special task force to combat art theft, and Interpol tracks stolen art worldwide. But Canada appears to be an open field: the rcmp doesn’t have anyone dedicated to the problem, nor do any of the provinces save for Quebec, which has only two officers. “[Canada is] a great place to steal art, to hide looted art, and to smuggle it into the United States,” says Czegledi. “There’s no one paying attention. It’s like the Wild West out there.” Indeed, Interpol’s list of art stolen in Canada includes works by this impressive roster: Marc Chagall, Joan MirĂ³, Peter Paul Rubens, and contemporary artists such as Alex Colville and Andy Warhol.

“We need to be more aggressive and go into museum and gallery collections,” insists Czegledi, “and say, ‘Listen, don’t say this [painting] is an anonymous loan,’ say, ‘It was stolen from a couple who were killed in the Holocaust.’ Canada is not doing anything.”

The Art Loss Register in New York City, which helps potential buyers verify whether works are stolen or not, rarely receives a call from north of the border. “We have very few clients in Canada who search our database,” says the register’s operations manager, Katherine Dugdale. “Certainly, auction houses there don’t use us.”

An unusual glimpse into the Canadian art-crime scene occurred in January 2004, when five eighteenth-century ivory statues carved by Huguenot craftsman David le Marchand and belonging to media magnate Ken Thomson, were stolen during business hours from the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The thieves simply lifted the glass cases containing the $1.5-million statues and walked out. A $150,000 reward was offered by an insurance company, and two weeks later a lawyer acting as a go-between returned the statues.

That seemed like a painless ending for both the gallery and Thomson, who was so relieved when police returned his ivories that he placed them lovingly on his bed. “They meant so much to me,” said Thomson at the time. “People wouldn’t understand unless they were collectors themselves and had a very special affinity with something that they possessed that virtually became part of them.” But did the thieves actually receive the reward money as ransom, allowing them to escape justice and rob again? It wouldn’t surprise those who understand the sophistication of art thieves, and the almost compulsive desire of galleries and collectors to secure the safe return of their prized possessions.

Chad Wolfond remembers the morning of September 11, 2001, not only for the attack on the World Trade Center, but also for the robbery at his Lonsdale Gallery in Toronto. Waking up early that morning, he skipped breakfast and left on his usual ten-minute walk to work. Once at his desk, Wolfond tapped the keyboard of his computer, expecting it to power up. When it didn’t, he glanced down to discover it was gone. Then he noticed a paper trail across the gallery floor leading to filing cabinets where his vintage pinhole photography collection was stored. As he rifled through the drawers, his heart sank — the best works he owned, including those by leading French photographer Ilan Wolff, were missing. “I felt simultaneously pissed off and mildly flattered,” recalls Wolfond. “The thief had left photos that I also thought were inferior.”

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2 comment(s)

AnonymousFebruary 21, 2008 17:05 EST

i want to know about the other scream...the one that was never found to this day, why is there no sites on this?

AnonymousSeptember 24, 2011 11:13 EST

Dear Bonnie
What a wonderful description of your acts.
It is already 4 years since I visited you in Toronto.
I hope to hear from you and maybe you will come to Israel.

Yours with best regards

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