The truth behind stolen artworks

Art theft more about adrenalin than money, detective who recovered “The Scream” says.

edvard munch
Hill tracked down Edvard Munch’s The Scream after it was stolen in Oslo [EPA]

Charles Hill, who once headed up Scotland Yard’s famous Art Squad, is renowned for recovering Edvard Munch’s The Scream, after it was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway in 1994. To retrieve the painting, he went undercover, posing as an art dealer.

He also recovered Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid.
Since becoming an independent detective in 2002, Hill has hunted down a Titian, stolen from the stately home LongLeat House in Wiltshire, England.

Al Jazeera spoke to him about the latest high profile art robbery to hit a Paris museum, which included works from Picasso and Matisse.

Al Jazeera: Who do you think has stolen these art works?
Hill: I find this a very unusual theft. Unlike the Van Gogh museum theft in 2002 where the thieves broke a window and grabbed two nearest paintings, in this case the thief has got in and wandered across the breadth of the building. This means he’s got some knowledge of the place and has recoinntered the place quite well.
I think he might be a loner, although I suspect he had someone waiting outside ready to take the paintings away.
What’s going to happen to the paintings now? 

Hill helped recover Johannes Vermeer’s Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid [AP]

The more I look at this the more I am puzzled by it.

There’s no Dr. No, some high class gangster, who is going to buy these. That just doesn’t happen.

I suspect it is a vanity theft – he realised he could do it so he just did it. I am pretty sure this all about adrenalin and vanity.
But surely they will make a lot of money too?
Nobody has made money from it yet and no-one will. The city of Paris will not ransom these works back.
And is that what usually happens with great works of art which are stolen? They are ransomed back?
This can happen. The man who stole the Cellini Salt Celler – which was taken from a museum in Vienna and worth around $60m – tried to ransom it through adverts in the International Herald Tribune.

But he gave out various mobile phone numbers and the Vienna police did a fantastic job of tracking him down through these.
Why steal art as opposed to robbing a bank if it’s not easy to make the money back?
They can be used as collateral for a loan in criminal circles, but that doesn’t happen as often as you think. You don’t want to have works like this hanging around. If you get caught in France you would be sent down for a long time. The French take these things personally.
But it’s exciting, adventurous and probably fun. I imagine the man who stole the paintings is walking around with a puffed out chest today but I think there is a good chance he’ll get caught.
You don’t think this individual is a real professional?
My guess is he’s an alarm specialist and that he’s worked out the museum’s alarm system. The man who stole the Cellini Salt Cellar was a security specialist.

So what normally happens to paintings like this – are they sold on the black market and is there a risk of damage?
Plenty of risk of damage – but as far as the black market – there is no black market. 
Is there any normal practice in art thefts – or is every case individual?
All individual – what happens is that the handler beyond the theft is stuck with these things for years and doesn’t know what to do with them.

Where would you start if you were in charge of recovering these paintings?
I would start with the crime scene itself which is so unusual. The layout is part of the 1937 exhibition in Paris – it’s a big old building. Looking at it on the map – gallery 6 is where most was stolen but one was stolen from gallery 8 – which is a distance from the others. This says a lot about the person and I would start there. He’s spent a lot of time recoinntering.
You’ve recovered Edvard Munch’s The Scream – which many people thought would never be seen again – how did you manage to get it back?
I pretended I was the guy from the Getty museum and wanting to buy it back from them and they fell for it.

Once you’ve done it a couple of times it gets less so – but now I simply talk to people face to face. I go to see the gypsies in their camps and it seems to work. I’ll talk to anyone and try and come up a solution.
There’s something glamorous about art theft – do you feel any sympathy with the men you track down or not?

The crime is glamorous because the art is glamorous. The people who steal art are misguided I think. They are in some ways romantic. I will talk to any thief and try to come to an understanding with them because I think they are misguided.

People are talking about this latest heist as a historic theft? How big a theft is this?
Its a big theft but it all depends on what sort of astronomical figure you put on these – you can put any figure on these. They’re exceptional and exceptionally valuable but this isn’t about money. That’s one of the reasons the people are so misguided who steal them.  

Source: Al Jazeera