Why steal famous paintings?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Feb. 11 2008 1:34 PM

Why Steal Famous Paintings?

How could you possibly sell them?

Monet's "Poppies Near Vetheuil"
Monet's "Poppies Near Vetheuil"

Armed robbers in ski masks made off with $163 million in world-famous art from a Zurich museum over the weekend. The theft, which involved works by Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Degas, was the second Swiss art robbery in a week. In a 1998 "Explainer" column, reprinted below, Bruce Gottlieb delves into the world of high-end art thievery.

Two months ago, thieves stole two Van Goghs and one Cezanne from a Rome museum. Police recovered the paintings from the thieves' apartments last week. But why steal famous paintings? Stolen paintings this famous could never be publicly displayed in a museum or rich person's home, which means they can't just be resold at Sotheby's. They may be worth millions, but how can a thief turn them into cash?

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One way is to sell to private buyers. Of course, these buyers cannot display or resell the painting—they are true aesthetes, willing to buy art just to look at it. Sometimes a collector will even commission a criminal to steal a particular artwork. (This is what Italian police initially suspected, since by stealing the Van Goghs and the Cezanne, the bandits passed up several more valuable works.)

A second way is to exact a ransom from the owner or owner's insurer. Third, if the painting isn't really famous, the thief can raise money by offering the stolen canvas as collateral for a loan. Even reputable banks don't always check the provenance (record of its ownership) of items they take as collateral.

Finally, drug traffickers and other ne'er-do-wells may use paintings as a sort of international currency that is easy to transport and hard to counterfeit.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Bruce Gottlieb is a former Slate staff writer and chief counsel at the Federal Communications Commission; he is currently general counsel at the Atlantic Media Company.

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