Perspective Magazine: Brushes with the law

A few minutes before closing time on 22 December 2000, on a dark winter day in Stockholm, three men walked into the Swedish National Museum carrying machine guns. One of the gunmen told visitors in the lobby to sit down on the floor, while his accomplices grabbed three paintings: a self-portrait by Rembrandt and two Renoirs.

As the thieves fled the building they set off two car bombs, creating havoc on the roads that led to the peninsula where the museum is situated. They had also prepared tack strips to puncture the tires of cars nearby. With traffic at a standstill, it took the police 20 minutes to arrive. Meanwhile, the thieves made their getaway on water in a high-speed boat and disappeared under a cloak of darkness. “It’s a pretty good heist,” says Robert K. Wittman, former FBI special agent and founder of the FBI’s rapid deployment art crime team.

It was a fisherman who saw the three men jump out of a boat carrying paintings. When he read about the heist in his local newspaper the next day, he alerted the police, who inspected the boat. “They used a credit card to pay for the boat,” says Wittman. “That’s not a good idea.” It enabled the police to track down some of the thieves and recover one of the Renoirs. The other two paintings were nowhere to be found.

IN THE FRAME

The FBI estimates that up to US$6bn worth of art and cultural artefacts are stolen worldwide every year. Only about 15% of stolen art is recovered, says Christopher A Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery International. He explains that art theft has many facets: from stolen paintings at museums and private homes, to the looting of archaeological sites worldwide, especially those in conflict zones.

In the 21st century, art theft and its recovery continue to fascinate cinema-goers – from Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Maria Altmann as she sought to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer in Woman in Gold through to an army platoon’s efforts to rescue creative masterpieces from Nazi thieves in The Monuments Men. However, the reality of stealing, tracking down and recovering stolen artwork like Rembrandt’s self-portrait is another matter.

“Hollywood would make us believe that there are people who steal art because they’ve tried to build some underground, illicit collection,” says Marinello. But there’s nothing romantic about art crime. “It’s always done for money. The people that steal art are the same folks that will steal your wallet, smash into your car and drive away – just common criminals.”

On rare occasions, art is stolen by industry insiders. In 2006, a librarian at Yale University’s Beinecke Library spotted how a man in the rare documents room dropped an X-Acto knife blade on the floor. She called security and Edward Forbes Smiley, a well-known rare maps dealer, was caught red-handed with seven maps he had cut out of special collections.

“When experts steal, they delude themselves into thinking ‘I’m the one who appreciates it, so I should have it. It is just sitting there collecting dust and other people don’t even look at it’,” says Wittman. But for the vast majority of thieves, it’s just about money. What’s more, criminals tend to be much better at stealing art than selling it. “They don’t think about the fact that it’s going to be very difficult to sell a stolen object, especially in the internet age when news of a theft can spread like wildfire,” adds Marinello.

QUESTIONABLE ARTEFACTS

There are several databases for stolen art – including the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, Interpol’s register and non-profit organisation Artive’s database – listing hundreds of thousands of items, including paintings but also valuable musical instruments, religious items and antiques. These databases allow individuals and museums to register thefts and cross-check the provenance of questionable artefacts.

Most stolen artwork is never recovered. Last year, a solid gold toilet was stolen at Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill’s birthplace. It was an artwork created by the artist Maurizio Cattelan, valued at £4.8m, and it has yet to be recovered, despite the arrest of seven people in the course of the investigation. Art crime also happens online too. In 2018, hackers duped buyers of a John Constable painting into sending the £2.4m payment to the wrong bank account.

Of course, theft is only one form of art crime. Forgeries are big business, and according to one often-cited statistic, some 10% of works in museums are fake. In 1999, the infamous British art forger John Myatt – who imitated Graham Sutherland and Ben Nicholson and aged the paintings with garden mud and vacuum cleaner dust – was sentenced to one year in prison. Now he makes a business out of selling ‘genuine fakes’.

So what did happen to the second Renoir and the Rembrandt? In his 20-year career with the FBI, Wittman helped to recover US$300m worth of art and cultural property across 20 countries. In his book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, he recounts many tales, including how he tracked down the golden armour of a Peruvian warrior king and a Rodin sculpture that inspired the Impressionist movement. Since retiring from the FBI, he has set up Robert Wittman Inc., which provides security, protection and recovery services for stolen artwork.

Wittman epitomises the modern-day art detective and has been described as a “living legend” by The Wall Street Journal. As the son of antique shop owners, he grew up surrounded by art. But when he first joined the FBI, he did not intend to investigate art crimes. “I wanted to do drug investigations in Miami on a cool cigarette boat in the harbour with all the accoutrements of that,” he says.

THE SECOND RENOIR

Instead, the FBI sent Wittman to Philadelphia and in 2005 he was running its art crime team when one of his investigators called from Los Angeles. “They were doing a drug investigation and the subject of the investigation, called Boris, mentioned the second Renoir,” says Wittman. After some surveillance, the FBI managed to recover it from Boris’s car trunk.

It turned out that Boris also knew the whereabouts of the Rembrandt portrait – it was still in Stockholm. “When you’re working undercover, there are two ways of infiltrating a group,” says Wittman. The first strategy – the ‘bump’ – involves frequenting the group’s preferred pub or nightclub until you get a chance to strike up a conversation. The second strategy – the ‘vouch’ – involves a person from the group vouching for you to gain entry into their inner circle.

In this case, Boris would be the vouch for Wittman. “It turns out that Boris was actually the father of one of the three individuals who had the painting,” says Wittman. “You can see that there’s no honour among thieves. He was willing to turn in his son to get a break in sentencing for his drug crimes. The plan was to go to Sweden, meet the criminals to negotiate a sale of the Rembrandt and then do a sting operation to arrest them and recover the painting.”

But Wittman’s team soon encountered an obstacle. They couldn’t go to Sweden because Boris had an arrest warrant there, so they decided to conduct the operation in Copenhagen. Wittman went undercover as an American authenticator and dealer for an Eastern European mob group. After a few weeks of negotiations, Wittman and the thieves settled on the price of US$250,000 for the US$35m Rembrandt portrait.

One of the reasons why art is a popular target for theft is its size. Trailed by the Swedish police, the criminals were able to travel to Denmark carrying a shopping bag. “What else are you going to steal that’s worth millions and is that portable?

Nothing – right! The Rembrandt is only an 18-inch painting, it’s easily transportable,” says Wittman. Two of the criminals came up to his hotel room, while the third stayed outside with the shopping bag. “I show them the money, US$250,000 in cash. They count every bill and realise it’s all good.” But when the thieves left the hotel to supposedly fetch the painting, they bolted.

CULTURAL PROPERTY

The Swedish police called Wittman in a frenzy: “Do you want us to arrest them right away?” Wittman asked them to wait. It turned out the thieves were testing whether they were being set up. The shopping bag was a decoy, and the painting was actually with a fourth accomplice elsewhere. “So, had we stopped them, they would have known.” Instead, the thieves returned to the hotel with the painting. Wittman made sure it was authentic. Then, he turned to the hidden camera and said the code phrase: “This is a done deal.” Storming into the room, the Danish SWAT team arrested the thieves, and the Rembrandt portrait was saved.

It’s a prime example of how cultural property can be recovered. “If it was a stolen Chevrolet or a Mini Cooper, three countries wouldn’t work together to get it back,” says Wittman. “But a Rembrandt is a piece of cultural property that represents the genius of human civilisation.”

This article was originally published in Perspective Magazine, Winter 2020 issue

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