Thursday, March 01, 2007

Picasso art heist...

This past week, the granddaughter of Pablo Picasso had 2 oil paintings stolen from her Paris apartment. One, Maya and the Doll, the other Portrait of Jacqueline. Neither were famous pieces sought after by the art world, but more of pieces that Picasso himself held dear. The painting of Maya (which the thieves cut directly from it frame) was of his daughter and Jacqueline (which they stole the entire piece, frame and all) was his second wife. The painting are valued at $65 million (US) total... not nearly as an impressive price tag as the painting Boy with a Pipe fetched $92 million in 2004.

It is reported that there are nearly 500 stolen works by Picasso, but that is because he was so prolific in his work, creating over 20,000 sketches, paintings, ceramics, etc., in his lifetime. I read an interview with Katie Dugdale, of the Art Loss Register (the largest database of lost art reported) in the Toronto Star speaking about recovery time...

In high-profile cases like the theft of the portraits in Paris, recovery is likely because of intense media attention and ramped-up police efforts. Usually with things like this, they're recovered right away, Dugdale said, noting that the paintings, already recognizable, will become nearly universally so after their images appear in the media. For most works, the average recovery time is seven years, she said.

This statement piqued my interest. The average recovery time is seven years. And it got me thinking, it has now been nearly 17 years since the Gardner Museum in Boston art heist... the largest art heist in history (if you don't count the hundreds of years of looting of tombs, palaces, cathedrals, etc.) And with so much publicity behind it... not a peep from the black market art world on any of the paintings in nearly 10 years. So, with still being sick and not being able to sleep, I did a little research.

There is a wonderfully informative article in the Boston Globe from the 15th anniversary of the heist (you have to set up an account to view past articles, but it's free, so why not!) It has sound clips from the investigators, the guards, etc. And it walks you through step by step of that night and any breaks in the case in the last 15 years. I highly recommend a read through if you have the time.

But it's always interesting in the reasoning the thieves have in which pieces the thieves select to loot. In most cases, there were paintings left behind that had an incredibly higher value than those taken. Is it because the art thieves are very well educated in what is too visible to sell on the black market, or do they just grab what looks important? Also, why do they cut some pieces from the frame, but other, take frame and all?

In speaking of the pieces in Gardner heist, the Globe stated...

But what they did take was priceless. The two principal works -- ''The Storm on the Sea of Galilee," the only seascape that Rembrandt is known to have painted, and ''The Concert," by Vermeer, one of only about 35 known paintings by the Dutch master -- would each command at least $50 million on the open market today. The thieves did not treat the paintings with much regard. ''The Concert" was knocked out of its setting, and ''The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" was cut from its frame. The Manet, a work called ''Chez Tortoni," was also knocked out of its frame, the wood casing left on one of the chairs in the security supervisor's room.

In the Short Gallery, the thieves ripped five Edgar Degas drawings from two frames and tried to remove a Napoleonic banner hanging above the entry to the Tapestry Room. Evidently frustrated by the many tiny screws that held the banner inside its frame, they instead swiped the gilded eagle finial from atop the frame.

The investigators believe that the Napoleonic gilded eagle finial was taken only as a trophy for their success in the heist. They, investigators and museum officials, are baffled by the choices they made.

Investigators have also sought clues to the identity of the thieves in the particular objects they stole, and those they left behind. They wonder, for example, why the men took pen-and-ink sketches by Degas from the Short Gallery and left behind a far more valuable Michelangelo nearby. The motion detectors also show that the thieves never bothered to go to the museum's third floor, where perhaps the most valuable piece in the museum's collection, Titian's ''Europa," hangs.

But for all of these pieces, it makes me wonder where they end up. In a private collectors home, for their eyes only? In a box in a basement... waiting for the statute of limitations to run out to be charged with the theft (which is what happened in the Gardner case... they can no longer prosecute the thieves.) How many hands in the black market have handled these pieces?

Well, we may never know. But everybody love to speculate. In 2005, a documentary called Stolen was released. And it is rumored that there will be a feature film of the heist.

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