The reader may have caught a recent news story about a painting bought at a flea market near Washington, D.C., which must now be returned to the museum in Baltimore from which it was stolen many decades ago. The small canvas, “On the Shore of the Seine”, by the famous French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, was supposedly purchased in a box of odds and ends for $50.00 back in 2009. In 2012, when the alleged buyer consigned the piece for auction, it caused quite a stir in the art press, as such finds often do. Full coverage of this fascinating story can be read in this excellent summary in the Washington Post, and indeed the BMA should be very grateful to the Post for tracking down information regarding the ownership and donation of the painting to the Museum back in 1937, records which the Museum itself was not able to locate.
Stolen art is a subject which fascinates our culture in a way which differs from other types of theft. In film for example, the art thief is a character who usually falls into one of two types. He is either a technically skilled expert, who steals to order for the purpose of making a profit, e.g., Sean Connery in “Entrapment”, or he is a collector who loves possessing beautiful things and enjoys the challenge of obtaining them, as did Pierce Brosnan in the (vastly superior) remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair”. Either way, he is not a bull in a china shop, but someone who respects the fact that the property which he is stealing is to be treated as well as possible under the circumstances.
Yet just as the romanticization of figures like bank robbers or gangsters continues in popular culture without a real sense of the violence and lawlessness which surrounds the actions of such persons, the notion of the courtly art thief is an equally dangerous figment of the imagination. In most cases, the art thief is not some suave, Cary Grant-like figure in a smoking jacket, admiring his recently-acquired Breughel the Elder hanging over the mantelpiece in his graciously appointed flat in Paris. Rather, he is usually a low-level criminal, interested in quick access to cash, and not in the art which he has stolen. And one of the biggest art thefts in recent years gives us just such an example.
In October 2012, two Romanian thugs stole seven paintings from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, as part of a wider conspiracy involving several others in their home town, thanks to appallingly lax security at the Museum. The haul included works by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, which the gang subsequently attempted, unsuccessfully, to sell on the black market. Unfortunately, it was later determined by investigators that at least three of the missing paintings – and possibly all of them – had probably been burned, in an attempt to hide evidence of the crime.
Not only did the thieves, or at least their accomplices, betray an appalling lack of appreciation for the beautiful and important things they had stolen, but this was hardly their first entanglement with the law. Ringleader Radu Dogaru for example, was already under investigation for human trafficking, pimping, and robbery at the time of his arrest last year, and several of his co-conspirators were described by locals as thugs who stole from their neighbors, and threatened them on a regular basis. A friend of Radu allegedly involved in the heist, Adrian Procop, went on the run after the initial arrests, and was only captured in Britain a few weeks ago, when he attempted to enter the country using false documents. Dogaru and one of the co-conspirators have already admitted guilt and were sentenced back in November, while the trial of others involved in the heist will be going forward this Spring.
As one might expect, someone has decided to make a movie about the exploits of this gang, which will hopefully portray what they did in the shameful light with which it deserves to be treated. There is nothing adventurous, heroic, or laudable about destroying cultural artifacts: after all objects, unlike people, cannot fight back or defend themselves. Whether it is the taking of a single, small work by an important Impressionist which somehow found its way to a suburban flea market, or art theft on the scale of the Nazis as will be recounted in the forthcoming “Monuments Men” film starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett (which I am very much looking forward to seeing), we need to condemn art theft, not celebrate it as some sort of forgivable luxury which hurts no one.
Western culture has always looked backward for instruction and inspiration as to how it should move forward. It is why for example the Constitution – the original copy of which is lovingly preserved at the National Archives of course – continues to shape the path of the United States today, as lawmakers and jurists revisit the intent of the Founding Fathers, and debate how to adapt an 18th century document to 21st century needs. Without actual touchstones of history such as this, be they documents or paintings or the like, which can outlast by many centuries the people who originally created them, we lose a vital, tangible link connecting us to the past. And we are then, all of us, the poorer when such an irreversible loss occurs.