Anyone who reads this blog with any kind of regularity – that’s you two right there – will know that I have an abiding passion for art crime. I’ve come to the conclusion that I may have been Thomas Crown in a past life or something, but I can’t accept that it doesn’t have a glamorous side. Who wouldn’t want to have a Picasso under their bed in case of financial emergency?
I’m afraid Andrew Graham-Dixon – a man whom I would happily watch standing in front of a brick wall and let him tell me why it was modern art – went a long way to disabuse me of my assumptions. Art crime, as a general rule of thumb, is organised crime; and any mafia worth its protection money has its tentacles in the field, alongside the trafficking, gun running and whatever else they get up to. (I’m afraid I’m still in the era where Al Capone ruled the roost, so I suspect I’m a wee bit out of date when it comes to organised crime).
Graham-Dixon took as his focus the 2002 theft of two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. While neither painting was one of Van Gogh’s best known, they were historically very important; his first oil painting (Seascape at Scheveningen) and a picture of a Lutheran church which was dedicated to his mother. The latter painting, if I’m honest, reminded me an awful lot of his masterpiece Church at Arles, in its composition and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that he had one in his mind when he painted the other.
The fact is that even for criminals who wouldn’t know a Van Gogh from a Vermeer or a Rembrandt from a Raphael still understand that there is money in it; as Graham-Dixon himself points out, criminals trade using “the 10% rule”, meaning that if a painting is worth £100,000 they will trade it for £10,000. More importantly, under Italian law, criminals can return or sell their assets for a reduction in sentence; having a couple of Van Goghs under the kitchen floor (where the Van Goghs were found in 2016) could halve a sentence. So museum-quality art is considered quite the insurance policy for the criminal in the know.
Sadly, the overwhelming majority – almost all, in fact – of art thefts result in significant damage to the paintings, because they are simply not kept in optimum conditions. Fortunately, the two Van Gogh paintings suffered minimal damage – a small patch of paint had flaked off the seascape – but some are almost completely ruined by the damage suffered from endless trading and being kept in poor conditions. The fact that any are (a) recovered or (b) restored is frankly amazing.
Having learned all this, I now understand that there is nothing glamorous about art theft; it’s a nasty, vicious business and involves hardened criminals. The likes of Thomas Crown really are figments of the imagination.