Thieves broke into the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam on a Tuesday in October, 2012, around 3 a.m. and left with hundreds of millions of euros of works from the likes of Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Unfortunately for the thieves much of the value of the artwork is dissolved when the pieces leave the legal market. The Atlantic spoke to Robert Wittman, the founder of the FBI’s “art crime team” and the author of a memoir Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures to what the thieves will do with the art they have stolen.
Wittman believes that the thieves may be good at pulling off heists but are terrible businessmen:
They read in the newspaper about about the growing value of paintings and the new records that are set every year by Cézannes and Picassos, and then they think that they can get a payday by going out and doing a heist. What they don’t understand is that the value of art is dependent on three things: authenticity, provenance—the history of the art—and legal title. Those are the things that really do create the value. I mean, let’s face it, an artwork is basically a piece of canvass with some paint on it. So whenever you talk about these paintings, it’s a matter of authenticity and provenance and legal title. And if you don’t have one of those three things, you don’t have value.
If they heists are so complicated and involved, shouldn’t the thieves have a plan for selling the art, The Atlantic asked.
I did one investigation of a $35 million heist in Stockholm, Sweden. The thieves went in with machine guns. They put everybody on the floor in broad daylight. They stole three paintings. Two by Renoir, and a Rembrandt self-portrait. Then they set off two car bombs to stop the police and made their getaway on a high-speed boat. Now, that’s well thought out. That specific crime is well thought out. They did a “good” job when it came to stealing the items and getting away. But within the next five years, we recovered all three paintings. The Rembrandt, which was worth $35 million, we got back in an undercover operation in Copenhagen, Denmark, where I went in as a dealer for the “Russian mob,” and did a sting on it to buy the piece back. Again, in that situation, they really thought out the crime. But in the end, they had nobody to sell it to.
Absolutely. Another operation I was involved in, it was the largest heist in Spanish history, involving 17 paintings worth $65 million. They were stolen in Madrid. It was a private person’s apartment. They went into the apartment, knocked out the alarm systems as well as the guards, took the paintings, and for the next year tried to sell them. Again, we did an undercover operation in Madrid where we met with the thieves and were able to do a sting operation and recovered the 17 paintings. They had no place to sell them.
The big heists are ineffective but with pieces closer to $5,000 there is a market.
What happens with pieces that are worth much less—let’s say the $10,000 and less market, pieces that aren’t well known—is a burglar goes into a home and steals a $5,000 painting. That can be sold in a flea market, that can be sold on what they call the secondary art market, because it’s not well known. And that’s the vast majority of art heists. It’s not these once a year museum thefts. It’s burglaries around the world. And that’s the major part of the art theft business and the collectibles business.
The reason behind this being if someone pays $5 million for a work by a famous artist, they will make sure they have the accurate authenticity, provence, and title. A piece sold at a flea-market doesn’t undergo the same level of scrutiny.
Despite the expected value of the art, it seems like it isn’t the best business to get into. Unless, of course you’re only stealing the art so you can hang it on your bedroom wall and appreciate the master work of Gaugain.