Art Theft

Doreen Carvajal has a very interesting article in the NY Times on art theft.  In past years art theft has always seemed have secondary importance when compared to other forms of crime.  But given the increased amount of art theft, and the high exposure of many museums and private collectors, the fight against art crime is now developing and advancing.  There are many books, blogs, journals and now university programs about art crime, which both educates and advances the need to combat with more resources within law enforcement.With a recent increase in high profile art crimes, the various worldwide law enforcement agencies are now taking a harder look at art crime, and the public institutions and private collectors are starting to better protect their collections.

Much of the art theft is believed to be perpetrated by organized crime, in general, and specifically by a small but loosely connected group of art thieves. Many are not sure the purpose, as it can be very difficult to sell internationally recognized art.  As the article points out, it is easy to steal, but much harder to sell prominent stolen art. Ransom for the artwork seems to be a primary motivating factor, although many other motivations remain a mystery.

Carvajal writes
The loose organization of art thievery is illustrated by the case of Bernard Jean Ternus, a French career criminal now sitting in a U.S. jail in Big Spring, Texas, after negotiating with Mr. Wittman and other undercover F.B.I. agents over Champagne on a Miami yacht to sell the Monet and the three other paintings that disappeared in 2007.

The paintings were stolen from Nice’s Museum of Fine Arts by five armed and masked men in jump suits, who were in and out of the galleries in four minutes.

In infiltrating the Nice group — which included the owner of a motorcycle shop and a bulldozer operator who was later arrested — Mr. Wittman also found himself talking with Mr. Ternus and another Frenchman about the availability of two Picasso paintings stolen from the apartment of Picasso’s granddaughter, Diana Widmaier Picasso.

Whether or not Mr. Ternus really had contacts with the gang that stole the Picassos remains unknown, but Mr. Wittman said he received an e-mail with photographs of the stolen paintings posed next to a newspaper dated a week after the theft.

Olivier Baratelli, a French attorney for the Picasso family and also a victim of art theft, said that no one ever demanded a ransom for the two well-known paintings and a Picasso drawing, which have since been recovered. “Frankly, we don’t have explanations, and it all remains a great mystery,” he said.

The thieves were so careful the night of the burglary, he said, that they caused little damage to the paintings except for minor cracks when the works were rolled into tubes.

Ultimately, three middle-aged men — all with ties to the local circuit of flea markets and antique dealing — were arrested when they tried to broker a deal for the painting with a fourth unidentified art expert in a Panama hat. One of the suspects was Abdelatif Redjil, who had gained a measure of fame earlier when he claimed to be the first person to comfort the dying Princess Diana after her car crash a short walk away from the Museum of Modern Art.

Click HERE to read the full NY Times article.

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