Friday, February 15, 2008

Audacious Heist Nets $163 Million in Paintings!

Last Sunday, three masked men brandishing guns burst into a Zurich museum and snatched four masterworks in the second art heist in that neighborhood in less than a week. The method was simple, direct, inelegant, and potentially violent. Fortunately, no one was hurt because the many patrons and staff immediately hit the floor when commanded, and the thieves were in and out within minutes. They drove off in a white car with the paintings hanging out of the trunk. How sophisticated!

Media reports call this the largest art theft in Switzerland’s history and one of the largest in Europe. But what—oh, what!—do the thieves plan to do with their loot? Profitably disposing of stolen high profile artwork is notoriously difficult. There is too much media and police attention. A spokesperson from the Art Loss Register says, “From our experience in these big raids, police will either recover the paintings very quickly, or they will disappear for quite a long time.”

The stolen masterpieces were part of a collection that had been put together by Swiss industrialist Emil Buhrle, a man of disputable ethics for his willingness to sell arms to Nazi Germany during World War II and the questionable provenance of some of his paintings. At one point, an independent inquiry ordered Buhrle to return or repurchase 13 paintings that had belonged to French Jews.

Today, the distinguished array of French impressionist and post-impressionist works are housed in a lakeside chateau in Zurich and are available for public viewing. Well, all but the four which were stolen: Poppies Near Vetheuil by Claude Monet, Count Lepic and His Daughters by Edgar Degas, Blossoming Chestnut Branches by Vincent van Gogh, and Boy in a Red Vest by Paul Cezanne.

Of course, the writer in me could make some dashing tale out of this scenario, with Jewish families reclaiming their heritage, but that’s pure flight of fancy. All of stolen paintings are the works of acknowledged masters and quite valuable, but other pieces of greater value were left on the walls. The thieves simply grabbed four paintings hung in a row and escaped, indicating an ignorant, hasty job. The robbers may actually have no idea what they’re going to do with the priceless pieces they snatched so carelessly.

Raw greed, in other words, was the motive, but now they’re stuck with goods that they may never be able to make a profit on, much less get off their hands. Can you say: “dumb-da-dumb-dumb!”

The maddening part, of course, is that now these works are lost to society for an indefinite period of time. Art thieves don’t steal merely from a person or an institution; they rob us all!

No comments: