The gentleman thief is a favorite character in storytelling. He steals paintings, art objects, and jewels while always looking dapper, often has a way with the ladies, and usually holds a greater interest in the thrill of the chase than in the value of the possessions which he obtains. You can find variations on this character in movie roles such as that of Cary Grant in “To Catch A Thief”, Steve MacQueen/Pierce Brosnan in both versions of “The Thomas Crown Affair”, or Vincent Cassel in “Ocean’s Twelve”.
But while we know that all of these characters are fictional, sometimes life really does imitate art.
Police in the south of France (natch) have recently apprehended a real-life version of this mythological character, in the form of a former French civil servant in his mid-40’s, who over the past twenty years has accumulated over 500 objects taken from private homes, hotels, museums, and art galleries. The cache includes paintings, drawings, and prints by artists such as Braque, Chagall, Degas, Derain, Picasso, and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as a huge number of 19th and 20thcentury bronzes. There were also antique books and toys, ceramics, and recordings.
When caught, the alleged thief was apparently quite cheerful about it, and explained that he was motivated by kleptomania. The objects themselves were not put out on display inside his flat, but simply piled up. Moreover, unlike in most cases of art theft, where details of the crime are obliterated by the perpetrators so as to make recovery impossible or at least more difficult, this individual apparently labelled everything – including the date and location where the object was taken, and in some cases the approximate value of the object as well. No wonder then, that ArtNet has tagged him as the “OCD Art Thief”.
In looking through the hoard recovered by the police – which you can view here, split into four lengthy PDF’s – some themes emerge. The alleged thief definitely had a love for bronze sculpture, perhaps because it was smaller and easier to slip into the pockets of an overcoat than, say, a painting. It also seems as though he had a particular affinity for the work of Léopold Lelée (1872-1947), given the number of works by this French illustrator which were found to be in his possession. To be honest, until I read this story I had never heard of Lelée, an artist who seems to have transitioned from Art Nouveau to Modern Art rather successfully. (As an aside, learning about Lelée in researching this post proves a point that I’ve often made to my readers, when it comes to studying art history: there’s always an interesting new-to-you artist out there to discover.)
Yet perhaps most interesting of all in the hoard is the fact that, for reasons best known to himself, the alleged thief accumulated a number of works of art that carry a theme of penitence. There are works representing penitent sinners in attitudes of prayer, as well as representations of saints and scenes from Christian art. These things tempt us into psychoanalyzing why someone would steal such things. Was it a way for him to address feelings of guilt, by being constantly reminded of having broken the 5th Commandment? Or was the relative unpopularity of such imagery in the present day, thanks to our increasingly secular society, responsible for making these objects easier to steal, since fewer people would be paying attention to them? We may never know.
So far police have been able to return around 40 of the objects to their rightful owners. The hope is that, by publishing photographs of the recovered pieces, more of these things will be able to find their way back home. As to the alleged thief, his day in court is coming up sometime in the next few months, but given his unusual twist on the character of the gentleman thief, I suspect that there are already forces at work in the film industry, trying to come up with a script based on his exploits.