When an art historian evaluates an artifact in an art museum, he sees a precious wealth of information. When an art admirer browses a museum’s collections, she sees a marvelous display of talent and technique. When a thief takes a look at these same pieces of work, what he sees are dollar signs.
Flashing dollar signs.
Since people have been willing to pay for art, there have always been thieves nearby willing to steal art. Over 65 million dollars of stolen art have been recovered since 2004 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States. Unfortunately, many other pieces remain unrecovered.
The most astonishing of these thefts have been those of world-renowned masterpieces that even a 6 year old child would recognize as valuable. For example, can you believe that the Mona Lisa was once stolen from the Louvre? How much more audacious can a art thief get? Art lovers all over the world were flabbergasted to be told that following month after month of investigation, police could not pinpoint the culprit of the crime.
The Theft of Mona Lisa
Of course, centuries after Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, this work is one of the most famous works of art in existence. Of over 8 million people who are expected to visit the Louvre in 2007, 7 million of these visitors will want to see the Mona Lisa, according to Annie-Marie Andrzejczak, a union official for surveillance agents who work in the museum (source: Times Online, UK Edition).
So, while being the focus of so much attention, how could the Mona Lisa possibily be stolen from under everybody’s noses?
First of all, it was something of an inside job. The Mona Lisa was stolen on August 21, 1911 by a former employee of the Louvre who was still known by many of the guards who worked in the museum. This fact, of course, slightly relaxed the security surrounding Da Vinci’s work once this former employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, walked in to view it. Furthermore, one of the guards left his post shortly before the theft to smoke a cigarette for a few minutes. These two factors conspired to dramatically reduce the integrity of the security surrounding the painting on this morning in 1911.
The painting was taken immediately by Peruggia, who laid low for a couple of years afterward as art lovers around the world pulled their hair out in dismay. Finally, when Peruggia tried under the assummed name of Leonardo Vincenzo to sell the work to an art dealer, he was quickly busted by police.
The reson for the theft? Peruggia was unhappy that the Mona Lisa was a possession of a French museum, and he wanted to give Da Vinci’s work back to Italy.
Edvard Munch’s The Scream
The Scream is a painting that captures the imagination of old and young alike. It features a thin, ghostlike figure expressing despair in the form of a scream against the backdrop of a wasteland. Everyone in the world can identify with the emotion expressed in this work, whether the viewer be an adult surviving the loss of a loved one or a toddler who wants a candy but has been told “no” by a parent.
When it was lost, the curators of the Munch Museum in Norway probably felt like screaming. Security in the museum was far from the state-of-the-art at the time that the paintings were stolen in 2004. Gunmen held the staff and visitors at gunpoint, and then simply tore two paintings from the wall — The Scream and another Munch painting, Madonna. Due to the primitive security system, no alarm bell sounded.
The gunmen made their escape, and the paintings were not found for two years. They remained in relatively good condition, despite having sufferred this trauma of a kidnapping. Police were hot on the trail of the paintings almost as soon as they were stolen, partially because they were well-known works — easily identifiable by art dealers.
Nazis Theft of Art
One of the most brutal and shameful thefts of art in history has surely been the the methodical theft of Jewish-owned works by the Nazi regime in the years prior to and during World War II. Jewish citizens not only could not defend themselves against this seizure of their property by the German military, but many lost their lives as well when they themselves were seized and thrown into concentration camps.
According to Thomas R. Kline, of Congress Monthly, “The volume of art looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust alone is enormous, estimated to include, for example, one-third of all art in private hands in France at the time, and worth, in total, more than all of the art then in the United States.”
The value of these works is astronomical. Recently, when one of these paintings — Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, by Gustav Klimt — was returned to its proper owner, it was later sold for 135 million dollars!!!
Art Loss Register
Did you know that musems are not the only place that art is stolen from? Did you know as well that your grandmother’s handmade quilt can qualify as art?
You can protect the possessions in your own home by registering valuable objects with the Art Loss Register. While there is a fee for registration, it is a service you may want to consider if you want to enlist the aid of others to protect either priceless objects or objects with great sentimental value.