Art lovers had a lot to fret about recently: The Associated Press reported that on Tuesday, October 16, thieves broke into a Dutch museum and stole seven paintings by legendary artists such as Picasso, Monet and Matisse. The haul could be appraised in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Not that the thieves will ever see that kind of money. Wander over to Queens Library’s adult nonfiction section and find out why in Stealing Rembrandts, a fascinating account of the many, many thefts of the Dutch master’s works.
In simple, direct sentences, security expert Anthony Amore and former Boston Globe reporter Tom Mashberg explore the realities of art theft, which is surprisingly common.
The first thing you learn is that there are no supervillains amassing private galleries of stolen masterpieces – nor dashing gentleman thieves dodging laser beams and rappelling into the main atrium. That myth seems to have emerged with Dr. No, the 1962 James Bond film in which Sean Connery’s character discovers a stolen Goya painting deep inside the titular character’s lair (read the book’s introduction to find out the ridiculous true story of the theft).
That doesn’t mean the figures involved in these thefts aren’t colorful—and frequently larger than life. One of the most prolific art thieves of recent memory was a French waiter who stole more than $1 billion in art from 172 European museums between 1995 and 2001. His motive: Love. The man put the items in his bedroom at his mother’s house. There’s an astounding epilogue to the story, but I’ll leave that to you to read.
On the other end of the spectrum was Martin Cahill, an Irish crime boss who organized the 1986 theft of 18 works of art from a diamond heir’s mansion. Cahill may have stolen the works to use as ransom, to spite the Irish government, or to embarrass the aristocracy—no one is really sure, and since the IRA killed Cahill in 1994, he can’t explain. But evidently he cared little for the appreciation or upkeep of the immensely valuable works.
The bottom line? Art masterpieces are relatively easy to steal, but incredibly difficult to sell properly. Amore is now head of security at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where a massive 1990 art heist took place, so he may have his own motives for spreading this message. But he and Mashberg provide ample evidence to back up this claim: “Time and time again, robbers, fences, and their associates find that conducting a heist or meddling in its aftermath leads to headaches, betrayals, bad publicity, police surveillance and, of course, prison time. Better in the long run to steal the money from the museum’s donations box than its famous works of art.”
Hungry for more real-life heist stories? Check out the books King of Heists or Ballad of the Whiskey Robber. Want more escapist cinema? Check out the art-heist film Topkapi.