WHAT INTERPOL WANTS FOR CHRISTMAS

Each month, more than 1,000 works of art are reported stolen around the world - only a fraction are ever recovered. Here's why ...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Art Theft has become the most lucrative and risk-free of all criminal activities. Interpol, and the police forces of its 177 member countries, treat it as a tiresome irrelevance, going through the motions of tackling it without any expectations of success. The Interpol headquarters in Lyons, France, receives notification of 200 to 250 cases worldwide in an average year (of which the paintings and sculptures on these pages are typical recent examples). In contrast, the Art Loss Register, a private-sector initiative set up in 1991 by the art trade and the insurance industry, gets between 1,000 and 1,500 notifications per month - but has only recovered 850 items in the six years of its existence.

"This is all a very good sign for me," Michel van Rijn, the international art fraudster, told me last week from his present base in Rome. "They are so inefficient, one really doesn't have to worry." Van Rijn was the FBI's chief suspect as the mastermind behind the heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990. It remains the biggest unsolved mystery in the game. The thieves made off with five paintings, six drawings and an ancient Chinese beaker valued, in all, at $200m. Among them were works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas and Manet. "I did a trade with the FBI," Van Rijn told me. "They let me into America without being arrested and I agreed to their using a lie detector while they questioned me on the Boston job - I didn't do it, of course."

The police response is still at the level of PC Plod chasing burglars up drain pipes. They don't bother to employ art historians; only France and Italy have specialist forces dealing with art and antiques. "They'll never get ahead of the fast, bright men who run the international art market," says Van Rijn.

Of the 43 police districts in England and Wales, only the Met and Sussex have specialist squads. Hampshire gave up keeping a specialised detective last year. Scotland Yard has a computer database of art stolen in the Metropolitan area - but there is no national system. Scotland, which has a separate judicial system, has virtually no contact over the border. At the same time, London is the most important art-trading centre in Europe and stolen art pours into Britain for sale.

So what's actually being done about it? Interpol acts as an international communications centre on art thefts; it receives notifications from the police forces of member countries and circulates them around the globe. Once every six months, it issues posters featuring the six "Most Wanted Works of Art". These posters mix world-class museum items indiscriminately with junk-shop decorations - it seems no one in Lyons knows the difference. A typical selection of Interpol's "Most Wanted" art works is illustrated here.

Then there's the Art Loss Register, a private UK company run with the aim of returning a profit to its shareholders, which include Sotheby's, Christie's, the British Antique Dealers' Association, the London Society of Art Dealers, Lloyds of London and a swathe of insurance companies. It has offices in New York, London and Australia, and employs eight young art historians. The ALR runs a database of art stolen worldwide, classified according to sensible art-historical criteria, and including good photographic images. The art historians check through auction catalogues searching for a match and comb caches of art seized by the police. Over a period of six years they have found some 850 stolen items.

There is also Trace magazine, published monthly out of Plymouth with photographs and descriptions of recent thefts. Trace is now part of the Thesaurus Group, which runs a computerised search service of art on offer at provincial auctions. If you want to buy a particular type of artwork, they'll keep you posted; equally, they'll search the auction catalogues for your stolen art. And in February, the Oxford greetings-card publisher Duns Tew will be launching a new line of cards featuring stolen art. "Some of them will be famous thefts and others the kind of thing you might spot in a little auction in Banbury," says managing director Christopher Woodhead. Send a greetings card and help nail a burglar! !

Above: The Crucifixion by Pieter Lastman (Dutch 1583-1633). Stolen from the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam on a hot sticky night in July 1994. Lastman was Rembrandt's teacher and the museum contained two paintings by him, this and The Lamentations of Abel. The theft took place at around 2am on a Sunday, while the cafe at the other end of the street was still making a lot of noise. The thieves forced the double-sided 17th- century oak door, grabbed the paintings and left. The police arrived within three minutes but there was no sign of them

Right: Sybil of Cleves by Lucas Cranach the Younger (German 1515-86). This belonged to the Margrave of Baden Baden and was included in the sale of treasures from his ancestral castle organised by Sotheby's in October 1995. She was lotted up with a companion portrait of her husband, Johann Friedrich of Saxony, and the pair were estimated to fetch DM50- 70,000 (pounds 20-28,000). They were exhibited with other paintings in a Perspex box in a room with a security guard; during the packed pre-sale exhibition someone lifted the box and took Sybil

Left: Precolumbian pottery figure, found at the Sinu archaeological site in Columbia and stolen from the National Museum in Bogota in 1995. This is a run- down old museum that would be easy to steal from

Above: an untitled abstract of 1923, composed mainly of geometric shapes, by Vassily Kandinsky (Russian 1866-1944). This framed watercolour, signed in the lower right-hand corner with a monogram, was taken from a parked car in Nijmegen, Holland - it was on its way to a commercial art gallery. Interpol gives it a value of 450,000 Dutch Gilders (pounds 156,000). Kandinsky is regarded as the father of abstract painting and his works, whether in oil or watercolour, are seldom on the market, most of them being in the hands of museums

Above: a typical Interpol poster advertising `The Most Wanted Works of Art'. A new poster is issued twice a year, always illustrating six items that have recently been stolen. It is up to the police forces of member countries to request the inclusion of an item on an Interpol poster. The art specialists at Interpol's HQ in Lyons then select a suitable combination of six. According to a spokesman, attention is paid to getting a good geographical spread - an effort is made to include items stolen in eastern Europe and the Third World. The result is a miscellaneous mix ranging from masterpieces to junk-shop buys

Left: two gilt bronze statues of women wearing royal dress, taken from a pagoda in Oudong, Kompong Speu, Cambodia, on 27 September 1994. Interpol records that both were originally wearing crowns set with precious stones but the crowns were stolen in 1987; there are also holes where precious stones were removed from their bodies and skirts. The Interpol valuation is $100,000 each. But according to a London dealer in Oriental art, such 19th-century statues are the stock-in-trade of Cambodian junk shops, usually selling for pounds 5,000 or so a time to interior decorators. Meanwhile, he points out, Interpol does not appear to have been notified of the magnificent 12th- and 13th-century stone carvings being looted from Cambodia's jungle temples

THE TOP 10 MISSING PAINTINGS

1. Johannes Vermeer (Dutch 1632-75) The Concert. Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, on 18 March 1990 (aggregate value of theft, with 11 other items, including two listed below, estimated at $200m).

2. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch 1606-69) Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Dated1633. Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on 18 March 1990 (see above).

3. Jan and Hubert Van Eyck (Flemish 15th century) The Last Judges, a panel from the Adoration of the Lamb altarpiece in the church of S Bavon in Ghent, Belgium. Stolen in 1934 and missing ever since.

4. Joseph Mallord William Turner (English 1775-1851) Shade and Darkness - The Evening Deluge. Dated 1834. Stolen from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in July 1994 while on loan from the Tate Gallery, London (insured for pounds 12m).

4. Joseph Mallord William Turner (English 1775-1851) Light and Colour - The Morning Deluge, Moses Writing the Book of Genesis. Dated 1834. Stolen from the Schirn Kunsthalle in July 1994 while on loan from the Tate Gallery, London (insured for pounds 12m).

6. Titian (Italian c.1488-1576) Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Stolen from Longleat in Wiltshire in January 1995 (insured for pounds 5m).

7. Jean-Baptiste Oudry (French 1686-1755) The White Duck. Dated 1653 and signed on a trompe l'oeil piece of folded paper. Stolen from Houghton Hall, Norfolk, in September 1990 (aggregate value of theft estimated at pounds 10m).

8. Edouard Manet (French 1832-83) Chez Tortoni. Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on 18 March 1990 (see above).

9. Caspar David Friedrich (German 1774-1840) Niebelschwaden (Wafting Mist). Dated 1820. Stolen from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in July 1994 while on loan from the Hamburg Kunsthalle (insured for pounds 1.6m).

10. Thomas Gainsborough (English 1727-88) Portrait of William Pitt the Younger. Stolen from Lincoln's Inn Fields in March 1990 (value unknown).

! Source: `The Art Loss Register'.

Comments