Art Thieves Almost Never Destroy Their Loot

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 19 2013 5:29 PM

How Often Do Art Thieves Destroy Their Loot?

Basically Never.

A empty spot on the wall marks the place where the stolen Henri Matisse painting was in Rotterdam's Kunsthal art gallery in the Netherlands.
A empty spot on the wall marks the place where the stolen Henri Matisse painting was in Rotterdam's Kunsthal art gallery in the Netherlands last year.

Photo by Robin van Lonkhuijsen/Reuters

Investigators announced this week that they may have recovered the ashes of seven stolen artworks at the bottom of a stove in Romania. The art, which included works by Monet, Matisse, and Gauguin, was stolen from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum last October in a highly publicized heist and three suspects were arrested in Romania in January. One thief’s mother now claims to have burned the works, which were valued between $130 million and $260 million, when she learned police were searching for them. How often do art thieves destroy their loot?

Almost never. The vast majority of art thieves use their plunder as collateral instead, using the works as leverage to bargain down criminal charges. And some art thieves steal art specifically to use it as bargaining chip at some later date. Throughout Europe, prosecutors are generally willing to lessen a criminal’s sentence if he can offer a valuable piece of stolen art in exchange. (Such deals are rare in the U.S.) In Spain, gangs have even taken to stealing art as insurance, using the purloined pieces to reduce criminal sentences for unrelated charges like drug possession and car theft.

When an art thief does destroy his stolen works, however, he tends to draw a disproportionate amount of media attention. In the 1990s, Stéphane Breitweiser attracted international notoriety for stealing over 100 works of art, about half of which he destroyed. (His mother helped, cutting up the canvases and shredding them in the garbage disposal or disposing of them in a nearby river.) In 2011, a thief stole $150 million worth of paintings—including a Matisse, a Picasso, and a Modigliani—from the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, only to throw them into a garbage bin, where they were then compacted.

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But art-theft experts agree that these instances are rare. Because most stolen art is so famous as to be unsellable many thieves become curators of their own illicit collections, keeping them safe (and secret) until they can use them as collateral. Consequently, the field of art recovery has an extremely high return rate: About 90 percent of stolen works will eventually resurface, either in private collections or offered back to law enforcement by criminals.

Had the mother of the Rotterdam thief simply held onto the paintings, she might well have helped her son bargain down to a fairly light sentence. With the works destroyed, however, the thief has no remaining bargaining chip. Both he and his mother will likely face charges for stealing and hiding the art—and, now, for destroying it.

Explainer thanks Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team, and Anthony Amore, art theft expert and author of Stealing Rembrandts.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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