Unkindest cuts of the thieves who trade in stolen paintings

POLICE in Italy have recovered two stolen 17th-century paintings. Correction: they have recovered one stolen 17th-century painting - but the work, stolen four years ago from a German private collection, had been cut into two parts, which the thieves were intending to pass off as separate paintings.

The police refuse to give details of the painting, as investigations continue. But it is not thought to be a well-known work, so it would have been relatively easy to sell the fragments as studies or smaller works by the artist or one of his followers.

This is no isolated case. Dividing stolen artworks into sections makes them easier to smuggle and the parts may be easier to sell than the whole work. This is particularly the case if the work is well known. Religious pictures packed with figures and different scenes provide especially rich pickings - faces, figures, an animal, even isolated hands, can be separated and passed off as individual works, or as parts of previously undiscovered but damaged paintings.

One source in the Italian police said that 'perhaps two or three out of every 100 works stolen' are being cut up. Another, in a different force, estimates that up to 10 per cent of large stolen paintings are cut up.

Although pictures have been cut up for centuries, as fashions changed or when a work was damaged, only recently has it been done for illegal gain. It is difficult to tell whether a work that is not well documented was cut yesterday or a century ago.

This could explain the fate of stolen items that seem to vanish completely, according to Philip Saunders of Trace magazine, which liaises with the police, the art world and even the criminal fraternity in recovering stolen art. Trace has a database of some 20,000 missing works. The average recovery rate, from up to pounds 3bn-worth stolen each year, is 3.5 per cent.

There is no evidence yet that any major works have been cut up, but thieves might take a knife to them if they could not find a buyer for the whole painting. Few believe in the 'secret collector' theory usually trotted out when a work too famous to sell openly is stolen. Roland Kollawijn of Sotheby's in Rome said: 'There may be one secret collector. But I don't see them as a major cause of this kind of robbery. A millionaire who can afford to pay thieves to steal great works can also afford to buy them on the legitimate market.

'When a Tiepolo was stolen from a church in Venice last summer, everyone suspected an American millionaire. But then it was found a few days later. It had been taken by a drug addict who didn't know what to do with it.'

If a secret collector hasn't got the Vermeer and other Old Masters stolen from a Boston museum three years ago, it is not entirely inconceivable that they have been divided and given forged provenances.

Caravaggio's Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, stolen in 1969 from the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo, is said by some to be in the hands of the Mafia. If not, perhaps the Saints Francis and Lawrence no longer share the same picture.

Julien Stock of Sotheby's in London estimates that the Caravaggio would be worth between pounds 20m and pounds 40m (depending on its condition). If the thieves tried to sell fragments of it, disguising them with some expert overpainting, perhaps saying they were from another version of the composition, they could be worth anything from pounds 10,000 for a single hand to pounds 3m for the angel hovering above the other figures.

But although Caravaggio painted versions of his pictures, they were not identical. Even if a master forger overpainted the fragments, X-rays and cleaning would give the game away.

Mr Saunders says that it is easy to divide up a painting: 'Just find an old frame and cut the canvas to fit.' To re-lay the canvas, you find some wood from the right period - from an old bookcase or wardrobe, for example. Concocting a story is even easier: 'It has been in a private collection for 60 years . . .' To indicate that it is the only bit of a painting to have survive a fire, he suggests that the edges of the fragment could be slightly charred.

As photographs are rarely clear enough to identify a fragment as coming from the original stolen work, 'it can be sold as a working study for the final work' - 'Everyone will be delighted at the discovery.'

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Wes Brown is sent-off
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review