When did you last see these paintings?

The three priceless works of art on the right were snatched in a raid on a gallery in Rome, it was revealed yesterday. They are the latest additions to a hoard of treasures, stolen to order and never to be seen again...

TWO VAN GOGHS and a painting by Cezanne have been stolen from a gallery in Rome in the latest in a series of robberies which illustrates how art theft has become one of the most lucrative global criminal activities.

The National Gallery of Modern Art's skeleton night staff of three were left bound, gagged and unable to call the police who arrived on the scene hours after the robbers had made their getaway on Tuesday night with the three priceless paintings.

In the first armed robbery in an Italian museum since 1992, wardens were forced at gun-point to deactivate the gallery's alarm system as the three thieves removed Le Jardinier and L'Arlesienne by Van Gogh, and Cezanne's Le Cabanon de Jourdan. These masterpieces will be added to the Art Loss Register's list of works of stolen art - currently worth more than pounds 1bn.

"These works are so valuable, and so well-known, that they cannot be sold; at least, not on the normal market," said General Roberto Conforti, the head of the police art-theft squad.

So, if these paintings are too celebrated to be sold on the open market, why steal them? According to Charles Hill, former head of Scotland Yard's arts and antiques squad and now a member of Nordstern, a leading art insurance group, the answer lies in the psychology of the thief. "They steal to fashion, not to order," he said. "It's a cachet crime committed by greedy thieves looking for a high-profile crime to make their name. It's a really dumb crime stealing a masterpiece - because you can't sell them on."

Mr Hill cited as an example Peter Scott, once known as "the human fly" as a result of his spectacular career as a cat burglar, who was jailed on Tuesday for his part in a plot to sell a stolen pounds 750,000 Picasso painting. The officer who led the police operation said he believed Scott "revelled in infamy".

In such cases, it is not uncommon for a ransom to be offered after the theft. Yesterday afternoon, police in Rome were investigating an anonymous phone call to an Italian news agency, in which a man said that a ransom demand for the return of the paintings would be made soon. He said this would include "political demands". Once such a call has been made, the chances of recovering the work of art improve.

Cultural heritage minister Walter Veltroni promised "utmost commitment" to recovering the stolen works, and pointed out that the use of weapons in art thefts in Italy was almost unknown. "This is a qualitative leap," he said. Mr Veltroni defended Italy's recent record on protecting its vast cultural heritage, reporting that art thefts were down 40 per cent in the first months of 1998, and that around 50 per cent of all stolen art works are recovered.

Gallery spokeswoman Elena di Majo had a different theory about the motive for theft, pointing to the fact that the paintings were stolen from a room containing works by major 19th-century artists, including Degas, Monet, Courbet and Klimt. "The robbers left behind a lot of great paintings worth just as much, if not more than the ones that were stolen," she said. "It looks very much like they were acting on commission."

Experts differ in their opinions of whether such paintings are destined for a private collector after being stolen to order. The popular image of Ian Fleming's Dr No, who has art stolen to order and preserved for his private viewing, is dismissed as myth by Mr Hill. But others, such as Colin Norvelle-Read of Trace magazine, which publicises stolen art and antique treasures, maintain that Dr No characters who revel in their secret hoards of stolen objets d'art do exist.

"Some collectors are quite obsessional about a particular piece and go to any lengths to actually get hold of it," said Mr Norvelle-Read. "It will just be that when they walk into their secret room with their collection of Lowrys or whatever, they get a lot of pleasure out of looking at the collection."

Thefts of instantly recognisable works such as the Van Goghs and Cezanne stolen on Tuesday night only occur about three times a year worldwide. While such paintings tend to remain hidden, the majority of art booty is regarded as international currency, employed as collateral in underworld deals or handed over to banks unaware of the paintings' provenance in return for loans.

"Commission theft does happen," said Caroline Wakeford, operations manager at the Art Loss Register, "but there's a much more sinister reason. The art is usually used as collateral in crime linked with drugs and arms dealing. It's like a loan note." Caravaggio's Adoration, stolen in 1969 and unrecovered, is said to have passed between mafia bosses as collateral.

Among the missing works or art recorded on the Art Loss Register in London are 349 Picassos, 250 works by Marc Chagall and 175 by Salvador Dali. The register keeps an eye on what is put on sale at auction houses and checks them against items reported as missing.


The Concert by Jan Vermeer - stolen in 1990 from a museum in Massachusetts: priceless


The White Duck by Jean-Baptiste Oudry - stolen 1992 from an estate in Norfolk: value pounds 5m:


Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt - stolen at same time as The Concert: priceless


Sibylle von Cleve by Lucas Cranach the Younger, stolen from a castle in Baden, Germany, 1995


Still Life by Georges Braque, a contemporary of Picasso, stolen from a Stockholm museum


Shade and Darkness - Evening of the Deluge, by Turner, stolen from Frankfurt 1994: pounds 10m


Portrait of a Lady by Gustav Klimt - stolen from Piacenza in Italy, 1997


Turner's Light and colour - the Morning After The Deluge, also stolen 1994 from Frankfurt: pounds 10m


Adoration by Caravaggio - stolen in 1969, stolen from Palermo's San Lorenzo Oratory: pounds 20m


Nebelschwaden by Caspar David Friedrich - taken from Frankfurt museum, 1994: pounds 1m

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn