Just in time for Rembrandt’s birthday is the release of a new book, Stealing Rembrandts, about the numerous Rembrandt-related heists over the last half-century – and the picture the book paints of art thieves and art theft as a criminal enterprise is far different from the romanticized images Hollywood is so fond of painting. The image of the suave art-loving tycoon with a vast private collection is a complete myth. More typically, art thieves are opportunistic criminals who know very little about the art they’re stealing.
80 Rembrandt Thefts in 100 Years
About 80(!) of Rembrandts works have been stolen over the last 100 years and almost all of them are eventually returned. In fact, one painting in particular is known as the “Takeaway Rembrandt” because it’s been stolen (and recovered) four times – making it the world’s most stolen painting! One painting, however, Rembrandts The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and has never been recovered.
In fact, one of the authors of Stealing Rembrandts, Tom Mashberg, believes he may have briefly found the missing painting in 1997. A group of thieves escorted him to an undisclosed warehouse and he inspected with a flashlight what he believed was the missing masterpiece. It went back underground, however, and remains missing to this day.
Does Art Theft Actually Pay?
Stealing Rembrandts argues that stealing valuable masterpieces – like a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh – almost never pays. The paintings are so recognizable that they are impossible to sell. No legitimate collector would be interested in procuring a highly-known highly-publicized-as-stolen masterpiece. The thieves, it is argued, are just not sophisticated enough to realize this.
Despite this, however, The FBI has estimated the stolen art black market to be worth $6 billion a year, and Interpol ranks it the fourth largest criminal activity behind drugs, weapons, and money laundering. So what pieces of art account for these statistics? According to this Canada.com article on the subject: “In most art thefts … thieves are looking for an easily portable, high-value item in a relatively low-security environment.”
Anatomy of a Real Art Theft
The real successful art thieves of the world – who wouldn’t steal a valuable masterpiece and don’t in any way resemble Peirce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair – might go through the following steps:
- Perform the heist, usually at a residence, gallery, or museum with lax security
- Wait for the media to report on the theft so they can find out the reported value of the stolen items
- Calculate the percentage of the black market sale, which is usually as low as seven to 10% of the value
- Use that value as collateral to finance other criminal ventures
How Art Theft Affects us All
So what does this mean for all of us? Hollywood often portrays art theft as a victimless crime, but the authors of Stealing Rembrandts take a completely different view. They view it as crime against all of us – against civilization. The theft or destruction of a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh or a Da Vinci, they argue, ends up depriving the world of wonderment and culture. As huge fans and enthusiasts of these great artists and masterpieces ourselves here at Paperblanks, it’s hard for us to disagree!