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Friday, October 7, 2016

The Most Stolen Artists

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen,
1884, Vincent van Gogh
About a week ago, Italian police in Naples announced the recovery of two stolen paintings by Vincent van Gogh, missing from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for about fourteen years. The paintings were found in a farmhouse near Castellammare di Stabia (a small town along the Bay of Naples, near Pompeii). There Italian police seized some 20 million euros ($22 million) worth of assets, including farmland, villas and apartments and a small airplane. Investigators contend those assets are linked to two Camorra drug kingpins. The paintings appear to be in relatively good condition despite their long absence from the museum. However, neither of the paintings is apt to be returned to the Van Gogh museum anytime soon as they are being held as evidence in the case against the Camorra drug syndicate.

View of the Sea at Scheveningen ( Detail), 1882. Vincent van Gogh
One of the paintings, an 1884-85 work, Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (top), depicts a church in the southern Netherlands where the artist's father was the pastor. Experts believe it was done for Van Gogh's mother. The other recovered painting is the 1882 View of the Sea at Scheveningen (above), one of van Gogh's first major works. It depicts a boat setting off into a stormy sea. Van Gogh is said to have worked on it over a period of two days, which allowed the thick paint to trap grains of sand that blew up from the Dutch beach. When masterpieces such as the two van Goghs are stolen, it's often a theft commissioned by a private collector who has already agreed to buy them, inasmuch as it's otherwise virtually impossible for thieves to sell such works on the legitimate art market. The Camorra, and other Italian crime syndicates, often find themselves awash in illegal revenues from drug trafficking, counterfeit designer-goods, and toxic waste dealings. Increasingly they are looking to launder their dirty profits while making still greater profits in the process. The two van Gogh paintings together have an estimated worth of $30-million.
The Pigeon (or Dove) with Peas, 1911, Pablo Picasso
All of this got me to wondering which artists might hold the record as the most stolen artist of all time. Any guesses? If you're thinking maybe Vincent van Gogh, forget it. He didn't even make the top ten on the list. Actually the number one most stolen artist of all time should come as no surprise. It's Pablo Picasso. Out of some 13,500 paintings and more than 100,000 graphic prints, some 1,147 have been stolen. Some have been recovered, some have, no doubt, been destroyed, but a huge majority are likely still "out there," hidden away, largely unseen by anyone, and totally unmarketable except in the dark, murky, criminal art market. And in case you're wondering which of the 1147 stolen Picassos has been deemed the most valuable, it's The Pigeon (or Dove with Peas (above), painted in 1911, stolen from the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in May 2010, (one of five paintings together valued at €100-million ($123 million).
No One Gets Out Alive, 2011, Nick Lawrence
Nick Lawrence at work on
The Being of Human.
Perhaps the most surprising name on the "top ten" list of stolen artist is an American painter you've prob-ably never heard of before named Nick Lawrence. Nick is a somewhat surreal artist working out of Flagstaff, Arizona. Most of his 557 missing paintings disappeared at the same time. In early 2004, the artist stopped by his studio at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) and found that some twenty years' worth of paintings and works on paper, totaling almost 1,200 pieces, had gone missing. All the paintings and prints were organized carefully on racks in the BCA studio. However, they were apparently in violation of a fire code. The arts agency claimed it had sent out a fire abatement notice, which Lawrence says he never received. When Lawrence took no action, the BCA moved the art. Some of it went to an unsecured shed out back. Some of it just disappeared. The next day, the BCA landlord took him to the shed claiming they didn't know if he was still around (he'd been absent from Boston for about six months). Many of the canvases were filthy. There were holes, and footprints with many of the stretcher bars broken. Works on paper were torn and trampled. Many works were unsalvageable. Thanks to a strong business background, Lawrence had recourse when faced with such a calamity. Luckily, he had insurance and a good attorney. But to get his insurance payout, he first had to sue the BCA, to determine liability. He settled with the BCA for $150,000. Fortunately, Nick kept careful photographic records of every work he had ever made. Without them, it would have been extremely difficult to negotiate with the insurance company. Appraisers for each side disagreed, so the dispute went to mediation. The case was ultimately settled when a court-appointed mediator ordered the insurance company to pay Lawrence $950,000 for his loss. That's a total of more than a million dollars in compensation. Although this episode stretches the traditional definition of art theft a bit, the money won't bring back any of the missing work.

For those still interested in the top ten stolen artists after all this:

ARTIST                 STOLEN
1) Pablo Picasso -  1,147
2) Nick Lawrence -    557
3) Marc Chagall -      516
4) Karel Appel -         505
5) Salvador Dali -      504
6) Joan Miro -           478
7) David Levine -      343
8) Andy Warhol -      343
9) Rembrandt -         337
10) Peter Reinicke - 336

For those craving a more in-depth look into the nature of art theft, art critic, Alastair Sooke, hosts a BBC documentary about some of the most notable high-stakes art robberies on record. His investigation leads into a greater exploration of those who commit art theft, their motivations, and why so few pieces are ever returned to their rightful owners. Though several cases are discussed, most of the focus is on a robbery from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum over twenty-five years ago. Considered the biggest art robbery in history, the theft was carried out by two men posing as police officers who managed to steal thirteen pieces of priceless masterpieces. Let me caution you, though quite interesting, the video runs for nearly an hour.

Click above to view: hosted by the BBC's Alastair Sooke.


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