Stealing Beauty

A thief makes off with an artwork. What does he do with it?

Illustration by Joe Wilson.

A spate of high-profile art thefts—among them the San Francisco Picasso heist that led to the discovery of a veritable museum in the thief’s Hoboken apartment, the walk-in lifting of a $350,000 Fernand Léger from New York’s Helly Nahmad Gallery, and the arrest of war crimes suspect Goran Hadzic following his attempted sale of a stolen painting—has brought up a nagging question: once an artwork is stolen, what, exactly, does a knowledgeable thief do with it?

The consensus in the media is that there’s no market for stolen art. Not so!

“I’ve met with fences from all over the world,” said Christopher Marinello, executive director of the Art Loss Register in London. “People who will buy stolen art from you on five percent of its value and then try to move it on. Once it goes into the underworld, criminals will trade stolen artwork. We’ve found evidence that stolen art is used in the trade for international terrorism, exchanged for guns and weapons, things like that.”

The basic argument as to why it’s impossible to sell stolen art is that between Mr. Marinello’s organization, which does what its name implies, the FBI’s stolen art database and its Interpol equivalent, there’s no way to sell a famous painting without it being red-flagged somewhere. Mr. Marinello works extensively with galleries, the major auction houses and law enforcement (“We’re sort of the Rene Russo character in the real-life Thomas Crown Affair,” he said) so that, theoretically, anyone trying to foist off a stolen painting on a vendor would be instantly arrested. But there’s something of a reporting bias here, because a work is usually only recovered when someone is caught unsuccessfully trying to sell it. In fact, a soon-to-be-released study by Mark Durney of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art found that of the 115,000 items entered into the Art Loss Register between 2000 and 2009, only 1.9 percent were recovered.

Law enforcement officials usually cite a statistic of five to ten percent recovery rates, Mr. Durney said, but even on a longer time frame he thinks this may be overly optimistic. “After ten years, I think, the trail tends to become cold,” he said.

And these works are not sitting in the private vault of a gentleman cat burgler. Charles Hill, the former head of Scotland Yard’s arts and antiques squad who helped recover Edward Munch’s The Scream in 1994 after it was stolen, has long insisted that one of the main myths surrounding art theft is that thieves are hired to steal for a “Dr. No” figure who is building up a for-his-eyes-only cache of masterpieces.

Mr. Durney, who “complet[ed] a thesis on debunking the Thomas Crown Affair art heist scenario by utilizing case studies throughout the 20th century” according to his ARCA biography, said he recently discovered a “Dr. No” theory as early as 1924. A heist of ornate jewelry in London was originally pinned on a fictitious Chicago collector, who supposedly hired the thieves when the jewelry’s owner would not sell to him. The theory proved false, because the jewels were later returned to the police for a reward when the thieves couldn’t fence the pieces, but the Evening News story from the period somehow describes the elusive Windy Cityite admiring the collection on display.

“So long did he remain in the room sometimes,” the Evening News reported, “That he had to be asked politely to go away.”

“The myth predates Bond movies, at least,” said Mr. Durney.

Step one in fencing your stolen painting may be to move it out of the U.S. and the U.K., which are, Mr. Marinello said, legally very “pro-theft victim.” In France, for example, one can purchase a piece of art in good faith and hang onto it even if it’s later revealed that it was stolen, leading to a somewhat healthier underworld trade for these works across the Channel.

“It is used as currency on the black market and often can be used as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for some thieves,” Mr. Marinello said. “For example you know the big theft in Massachusetts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that happened in the ’90s? The thieves with those pieces could always say, if they were captured, ‘Look we know where the Rembrandt is and if you give us a lighter sentence, maybe we’ll tell you where it is.’”

That case remains one of the more audacious unsolved thefts in recent memory. In 1990, the two thieves posed as Boston police officers and made off with 13 works, among them a Vermeer, a Degas, and three Rembrandts. The works have never been recovered, and it’s unlikely that anyone in possession of them would make the mistake of taking them to Christie’s.

It’s important to remember, though, that most of the time you’re not dealing with Rembrandts, said Det. Mark Fishstein, an 18-year veteran of the NYPD and the department’s chief art-crime detective.

“With the lower-end stuff, not the super well-known artists, but with the lower-end stuff, that makes good money,” Det. Fishtein said. “I do a lot of recoveries of stolen art where there’s no further investigation because it’s been so long, where it’s changed hands so much that it’s almost impossible to track it back.”

In circumstances like less-reputable art fairs or a simple person-to-person deal, which is not uncommon, the databases aren’t very useful. Such a person-to-person deal even inspired another theft last summer. A reputed con man drinking with a potential buyer for a Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot painting at—of all places— the Mark Hotel claimed he’d lost the painting on the way home, when in fact he’d tried to pilfer it by hiding it in some nearby bushes. Databases, Det. Fishstein said, are of no use in such one-on-one deals.

A stolen art database, Det. Fishstein said, is “something that’s used by auction houses and museums, large collectors, and dealers that don’t want to lose money. But a private person may not use it, they probably don’t even know about it.”

He added that, “people buy cars, and if they’re not educated enough in the purchasing of cars they don’t know VIN plates shouldn’t be loose.”

Besides the databases, another hurtle to clear for thieves is the remarkably common mistake of advertising that the art might be stolen. In one case that ended in 2009, an art thief named Marcus Patmon successfully sold a few works that he’d stolen, a Marc Chagall to a New York gallery and a Picasso to a California gallery. He made the California dealer suspicious when he told her that another copy of the second Picasso he was trying to sell her, Le Repas Frugal, had recently been stolen from a Palm Beach gallery — by him, it would later turn out. A Brooklyn couple was also arrested that year after advising a potential buyer not to display the Nicholas Roerich he was considering buying on his gallery wall, since it was stolen.

“Here’s the thing with works of art,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, program manager for the FBI’s 13-agent Art Crime Team. “If they’re not incredibly famous works whose theft would make the front page of The New York Times, that stolen work of art would easily enter the legitimate market. There is no title document that usually goes with a work of art. There are provenance documents, but they’re not a legal requirement.”

And even the purchasers who do look into the provenance of a work can be fooled. Ms. Magness-Gardiner said she frequently deals with forged documents of origin. In one extreme case, Manhattan dealer Frederick Schultz, who was convicted in 2002 for illegally importing and selling looted goods, created a fictitious collector to stymie questions about the origins of his smuggled Egyptian goods. Mr. Schultz said the artifacts came from the estate of a collector named Thomas Alcock, a Briton supposedly taken up with the Egyptology craze of the 1920s, the subtext being that they were definitely not smuggled and definitely not candidates for repatriation. Mr. Schultz printed labels from the “Alcock collection” and baked them in his oven, to make them appear older.

Most thieves in the U.S., Ms. Magness-Gardiner said, are not terribly sophisticated, and if the fence is successful it usually means eating a good deal of the cost to be rid of the work.

“It might go to a pawn broker, it might go to a flea market, it could go to a highway antique store gallery where they take a look at it and they say, ‘Yeah I’ll give you $300 for this,’” she said. “And then they sell it for $5,000 to a legitimate dealer who recognizes it and says, ‘Oh well I can sell this for $15,000,’ and it passes through a series of hands and in each increment it might increase in value, it might double in value.”

In these cases, the person who stands to lose money is the last person who bought it. Take the case of Angel Palencia, who was arrested this past April on charges that he stole some $550,000 in art in a two-month Hamptons burglary spree that included socialite Joanne “Jo” Davis Hallingby as a victim. His paintings didn’t manage to climb very high on the ladder described by Ms. Magness-Gardiner—he sold a Daniel Ridgway Knight painting for just $1,500 at Hidden Treasure Antiques in Mineola. Its actual value is closer to $140,000.

The manager of Hidden Treasure, who worked with the police in the investigation of the thefts and spoke with The Observer on the condition that his name not appear in the paper, said that when he purchased the painting he didn’t think he was buying a hidden masterpiece off the back of a truck. Rather, when he selected the work from the many that Mr. Palencia allegedly brought to the store, he said he didn’t consider the possibility that it might be authentic.

“It is a decorative item,” said the manager. “You buy any painting that is hand-painted, it doesn’t matter if it’s original. It still has a value. You buy a painting because you like it.”

He had noticed that the painting was signed at the bottom, but said it didn’t factor into his decision to buy it.

“Sometimes, a painting will come in that is signed by the artist,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that it’s original. So that [a copy] was the kind of a painting that we were buying.”

The unwitting purchaser of stolen works is hardly ideal for the ambitious thief. Those looking to get the most bang for their buck would do well to sell as high on the ladder as possible, if not work with the black market described by Mr. Marinello.

Det. Fishstein, though, had even blunter advice when asked for the best way to avoid being caught after you’ve stolen a piece of art.

“Throw it away!” he said, shaking his head in an amused way. “There really is no answer. Don’t do it, steal something else. They’re not easy things to sell.” Stealing Beauty