Global art theft: From Rembrandt to Riopelle

High-profile art heists are on the rise around the world and Canadian police are investigating between 90 and 100 cases every year.

Well known pieces can remain in the black market for decades

Gatineau Hills, by Group of Seven painter Frederick Varley, was stolen from a Toronto gallery on July 10, 2011. The watercolour is valued at $15,000. (Toronto Police Service)

Stealing a vehicle or jewelry is one thing but try getting away with a one-of-a-kind, priceless piece of art that is known the world over.

A painting by Vincent Van Gogh or Rembrandt, for instance, is not exactly the sort of thing that gets bought and sold everyday.

But that hasn't stopped criminals from trying, both here in Canada and abroad. In fact, high-profile art heists are on the rise around the world and even Canadian police are investigating between 90 and 100 cases every year, a spokeswoman said.

Earlier this week, thieves in Estérel, Que., tried to make off with a pair of bronze statues created by renowned Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle while last month 11 paintings valued at $387,000, including several from the Group of Seven, were stolen from a gallery in Toronto. 

Art and cultural property crime, including theft, fraud, looting and trafficking, is part of an international black market worth $6 billion annually, according to the FBI's art crime squad.

In 2008, the RCMP partnered with the Sûreté du Québec to create Canada's first arts theft unit.

A total of five officers — some of whom have earned degrees in art history — investigate thefts across the country. They work with the Canada Border Services Agency and Interpol, which operates a free, public database of stolen art from around the world.

Pieces can be stolen from a number of places, including private residences, museums, galleries as well as places of worship.

What's more, thanks to the global economic downturn thefts are on the rise, says Christopher Marinello, executive director of the Art Loss Register, which maintains a list of 360,000 pieces of lost or stolen art.

The organization charges a fee of $75 US for each search.

Stolen art can remain underground for decades

Moving an incredibly famous piece can be very difficult, Marinello said, because legitimate dealers will research the authenticity of a piece in a process known as provenance.

This involves determining where it came from, checking whether it was shown in other galleries and asking where it was originally purchased as well as consulting databases of stolen art.

Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh, was stolen from an Amsterdam museum in 1991. It was found just hours later. ((Getty))

Marinello said thieves usually fall into two categories.

"One is where they're very quickly trying to get their money out of the artwork so they will almost immediately put it up for sale," usually to less reputable dealers or to larger criminal organizations.

"The other case is that stolen art will go underground for quite some time while the thief tries to figure out what to do with it," Marinello said.

Often a piece will be traded among criminals — sometimes as a sort of unofficial currency — for decades before surfacing again.

In March 2010, a Montreal art dealer alerted authorities after being approached by a man in Florida who wanted to sell a 1930 Paul Klee painting that had been stolen from a New York gallery 20 years before. 

A 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston netted thieves three Rembrandts, a Johannes Vermeer, an Edouard Manet and five Edgar Degas works, valued at almost $400 million US at the time.

None of these pieces have been found and no one has been arrested, though the museum is still offering a $5 million US reward.

It also continues to hang empty frames in the place of several of the paintings and its website lists the ideal conditions for maintaining the stolen works of art: 21 C and 50 per cent humidity.

Statues melted for scrap

The actual thievery process can also vary significantly — from simple smash-and-grabs to elaborate plans involving tunneling or impersonating police officers.

The massive bronze statues by the late Jean-Paul Riopelle weigh about 450 kilograms each. (SQ/Canadian Press)

Less organized and connected criminals will steal sculptures or statues solely for the value of scrap.

"Sadly, we find that those are often melted down for the value of the base metal," Marinello said.

Some reports, for instance, said the Riopelle statues were destined for the scrap yard.

Another concern for art appreciators is that criminals are hardly careful with delicate pieces, both during the actual theft and as items are moved around.

In August 2004, armed men burst into the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, in broad daylight and ripped down  The Scream and Madonna by Edvard Munch before fleeing. The pieces were eventually recovered two years later  but both had suffered damage.

"I've seen works of art that have come back after they've been through four or five different handlers and criminals and they've either got scratch marks on them or holes or frames have been removed or they've been cut out of their frames," Marinello said.

Launch a PR campaign

Unfortunately for art lovers the statistics on recovering stolen pieces isn't good either. Marinello said the recovery rate is between five and 15 per cent, though exact figures are hard to come by due to the global nature of the activity.

Bonnie Czegledi, an art and culture lawyer based in Toronto, said it is important to report thefts to both local police and groups like Interpol because globalization has made shipping illegal items easier and faster.

"If something is stolen on a Tuesday night in Toronto it can land in New York the next day," said Czegledi, who is also author of Crimes Against Art, which examines international art theft.

She said dealers should go to the media as well and provide photographs along with detailed descriptions of stolen items to bring more attention to the theft.

"There used to be a taboo not to talk about it when you've been robbed but it only benefits the offender," she said. "It's important to launch a PR campaign."

And if a dealer is hoping to recover a missing piece, they need to act fast.

The basic idea, Czegledi said, is to make the piece "too hot to handle."