Art, Thieves and Shady Characters

Art thefts don’t rank high as a daily concern for most people. After all, most people in the world don’t own expensive artwork, don’t necessarily understand the art market, and frankly don’t have time to care about the issue. What with caring for ourselves, our families, our friends, going to work and just trying to keep up with the laundry, cleaning and who knows what, who can blame them? In the cosmos, art theft ranks low on the priority list. But there are some of us who fret about it for personal or professional reasons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gentle readers: you know writers are just about a bubble off plumb compared to normal folks. I am no exception. And somehow this issue about art theft has taken up residence in my mind and I can’t evict it. I act like my Jack Russell terrier with her chew toys…she shakes and shakes her head from side to side but doesn’t let go. Nice mental image, right? Yep, that’s me about all this art stuff.
Naturally that means as a writer I must use all this information as fuel for a book. Or two, or ten or twenty.

If I am going to write books about boys and girls falling in love there must be some kind of fascinating background for their lives. People don’t live in a vacuum and you wouldn’t read a book that doesn’t give you any inkling about who these characters are as people and what they do with their time. It is hard to care about people or things you know nothing about. This sounds just like a circular argument. But I didn’t really mean it to be that way.
The salient point here is a writer must have many tools in her writing bag. Not just pens and paper, computers or typewriters. I mean a different set of tools. Tools like personality types, occupations, interests or hobbies. All the natural things that pertain to us real people are at work in a novel with believable characters.
You don’t want to read anything with cardboard characters. You have a crazy uncle, so do characters in a book. Your aunty is bonkers about making jam, some guy in a book collects baseball cards. You know what I mean? Ordinary ups and downs and activities of a normal life. Note that descriptor: normal. We don’t need to examine the lunatic fringe here!
This art theft business was always in the back of my mind but I didn’t actively research it until the past few years. Okay, a true confession here. I am plotting and scheming a book that is a thriller. It might end up as a romantic thriller, but I haven’t gotten that far. The underlying premise of the books is about how Nazi stolen art is used, along with other art thefts, to finance some nefarious dealings.

How so, you ask?
Believe it or not, art theft is the fourth most lucrative crime in the world. Yep. This is sort of a follow the money trail to show you, only it’s follow the art. First of all, artwork, particularly paintings, is fairly easy to steal and hide while traveling the globe to an eventual buyer. Since the works are hot properties, you won’t find them listed at an auction at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. Their catalog lists only works with proven provenance. Thieves are only interested in the money to be made.
Secondly, stolen goods can be held in escrow for a financial transaction or for outright payment. In plain language, some scumbag has the stolen art for sale to raise necessary cash. Yes, CASH. No bank drafts on these deals. The cash is then used to purchase other items such as drugs, weapons, humans, what have you. The underlying cash cow of stolen art is funding human sex trafficking and terrorism.
That might shock you. Most people don’t associate the two. You think ISIS or Al Qaeda buys it weapons from US military surplus sales? No, they deal with shady dealers. There are always people who want to make a buck providing weapons to clients. Their morals being what they are, it doesn’t matter who is going to get killed by these weapons as long as the arms dealer gets his cut.
This explains why ordinary people are starting to take some notice. The problem is not some hush, hush proposition. With irrefutable proof of these deals, we can track what happens to art or money. At least we can sometimes.

The track record on returning the stolen art is pretty sketchy. The record is even worse when it comes to the artwork originally stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis. Then the Communists rolled into Europe from Russia and yanked some of that artwork right out German hands. These boys don’t play well with others, you see. Hundreds of millions of dollars disappeared into the great maw of the underworld.

 


 

 

 

 

 

So where was I? Oh, right. This is really tasty stuff for the books, don’t you see? Why I can just invent all kinds of people and art and bad guys and the hero coming in to rescue the damsel in distress and reward money and…well, you get the picture. It will be fun. And I need some ongoing theme and structure for all my lovely ladies. Don’t be surprised if I turn up with a musician, a dancer, a painter and so on along with all these characters involved in artwork. But I have a soft spot for art historians, or curators, as they are now called. There is nothing boring about what they do all day. And my goal is to entertain, not bore, you, the reader.
As a matter of fact, in the quirky way life works, I started with three ideas, plotted them in my writer’s notebook, and when I sat down to write things took a turn here and a twist there. Such is life. The path is nearly always serpentine, not straight. I’ll let you know what’s happening. Right now, I have a music teacher, a handsome devil of a man, and their fiery dance to write about.
Have a great week and enjoy the books you are reading. I have to dive back into my imaginary world and get my work completed while the cat and dog snooze nearby.
Be happy in this first week of May!

Art Thefts, Pork Bellies and Big Money Deals

 

While you take the time to read this article, someone somewhere in the world is buying or selling stolen art. Every day is another opportunity for the thieves to increase their wealth while unscrupulous collectors add another work to their possessions. While these sales are illegitimate, unscrupulous and harmful to the art world, there are people behind the scenes trying to stop the transactions.

Van Gogh Vase

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The arts as represented especially by paintings and sculpture top the list of things most easily stolen and sold underground to collectors. I wish we didn’t have to refer to them as collectors because I would prefer to call them criminal collectors. Or maybe just criminals. It seems that they shouldn’t be respected by calling them collectors. They live by their own rules with little concern for the long-term consequences of their criminal activities. What matters to them is an addition to their hoard of artworks that won’t be seen by the public.

Simon Houpt wrote The Museum of the Missing in 2006. The book is about stolen artwork and begins begins with a foreword by Julian Radcliffe, the chairman of the Art Loss Register, a world-wide organization based in London. The Register maintains a database of stolen artwork that is continually updated. Radcliffe notes, “Art theft has become a global problem.” He says, “It is a crime that affects all of us. Nearly half of all items recovered by the Art Loss Register are found outside the country where they were stolen. Great amounts of money are involved, there are links to organized crime, and the lost pieces of our cultural heritage are irreplaceable.”

Museum Room
Depicting Missing Artwork

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Houpt posits the theory that politicians are reluctant to spend money on retrieving the stolen items because most people don’t place a high priority on recovery. If people are ignorant of their heritage and history, they are not likely to think about the ramifications of the theft of art. It’s not that people actually dislike their heritage, but they might be among those who have never had the opportunity to learn about art and music.

As fewer schools teach classes in art and music, as the study of history is watered down or distorted out of recognition of the truth, people are not exposed to the importance of cultural items and historical significance. People who have never really listened to classical music might not appreciate Bach or Mozart, just as they missed the beauty of Renaissance Italian paintings or the French Impressionists.

My point here is not to belittle people who have little or no exposure to the arts. And this is not the article for a diatribe on the curriculum of public schools, although what is taught does affect the attitudes that people develop at an early age.

When I grew up we studied art and music from elementary school through college. I graduated with my undergraduate degree from a teacher’s college where our core curriculum included studying art, music and humanities. It was a shared belief in our nation at that time that well educated people meant people who were exposed to various expressions of our creative nature. Since that flew out the window some time ago, sadly we see the result is a lack of concern for our heritage in western society.

The Concert by Vermeer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The question for us to examine is why is there so much art theft? Art has become the currency du jour of the criminal underworld and terrorist groups. Art is easier to obtain (by stealing, naturally) than diamonds. Most of it can be made portable by cutting the paintings out of their frames and rolling them up or packing them into shipping cartons with other items. Art work can be held in escrow while transactions are being completed or stored safely in numerous places in the interim. Naturally the stolen work escapes the roving eyes of tax collectors so there will never be a public record of art for cash or weapons.

The fact that art prices have risen astronomically, to say the very least, makes all thefts that much more tempting. When the Masterpieces of art fetch millions of dollars each, people are much more willing to take extraordinary risks to obtain that work. Ergo, art has become a commodity not unlike pork belly futures. (I couldn’t resist a silly comparison to lighten up!) Art for dollars, or something more dangerous like weapons. A new methodology has entered the criminal world.

Art thefts and sales weren’t invented in the 20th century, of course. But the idea of trading a stolen Picasso or Caravaggio for a shipment of weapons brought a new seriousness and sinister atmosphere to the trades. It also brought in a higher level of policing. Stolen goods were one thing; swapping stolen art for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles or fissionable material was a completely different situation. Now the intelligence services and security services have joined the local law enforcement constabulary in trying to find, track and capture the thieves, dealers, buyers and anyone else involved in the supply chain.

As Sherlock Holmes would say, the game is afoot. And it has become quite the game of risk worldwide. So far there is nothing to dissuade the thieves, so the loss prevention must happen at the site of the artwork exhibits. Sadly, that has been ineffectual many times. The thefts continue, the sales continue, and the weapons change hands so the worst among us can kill and destroy the best among us.

This is a moral problem on a huge scale. This criminal activity is the fourth highest ranking crime worldwide. Yes, fourth. I will continue to talk about this aspect of art theft in future blogs. Enjoy the paintings in your local museum and think what you would be missing if they were stolen.