Art Thieves Revealed

I heard a wise gentleman I know say that; ” 35% of all people would not steal if they had the opportunity, 45% would steal with the same opportunity and 20% would try everything they could to steal, no matter what the opportunity.” I am not sure where he got the statistics, but it sounded good.

Priceless -NY Times Best SellerBack in 2012 I did one of may favorite podcasts with retired FBI Art Crime Team Special Agent, Robert K. Wittman. He had an amazing 20 years of undercover work, sleuthing globally, retrieving over half a $ billion  worth of stolen art. He posed as an art dealer, a professor, a wealthy man with no common sense and many other deceiving personalities. During his stint, he had been held at gunpoint, carried brief cases of cash, and once bought a stolen Leonardo da Vinci self portrait for a few hundred thousand dollars. He was hot on the trail of the most valued art heist ever, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Theft of 1990.  Robert is also the author of Priceless where he tells of his crazy adventures while undercover, a facinating story.

One of the things that struck me the most was, the character of the common art thief. There are exceptions of course such as the image above shows the arrest of one of the Pink Panther jewel thieves in 2013. The handcuffed individual looks and fits the part such as Pierce Brosnan in the ‘Thomas Crown Affair’ or Cary Grant in ‘To Catch a Thief’. In reality 99% of serial art thieves look like common crooks who have lead a hard life of crime and prison sentences. Art is just another tangible item to steal, in their long list of sought out valuables.

painting_thiefThere has been years of glorifying the art or jewel thief with cast delusions of debonaire. I cannot guess the sociological reasons why these people could be regarded. For a reality check, one can search online to find the real cast of characters.

mona-lisa_1972213iVincenzo Peruggia walked out of the Louvre in Paris with da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in 1911. The Italian formerly worked at the Louvre and hid in the museum the night before a day it was to be closed. Peruggia actually expected a reward when he returned the painting to it’s homeland a few years later. He presented the stolen work in 1913 to a Florentine art dealer, Alfredo Gerri and needless to say, he was arrested the same evening at his hotel.

Important art is too well known, and once stolen, it can never be publicly displayed or sold in a public venue. I asked FBI Special Agent Wittman what people would be doing with the important works of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Could some Mafia icon be staring at them in his basement somewhere? He thought not, but also concluded that the pieces were probably traded in the underworld for reasons of power or leverage. My hope is, that these pieces are found someday, and returned to fill the empty frames at the Gardner for all to enjoy.

Exquisite art should not regarded as common chattel of a common crook. It is meant to be shared, not stolen away from the eyes of would be enamored patrons.

by Martin Willis,