What will happen to the seven paintings—including artworks by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Henry Matisse—that were stolen from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam last week? Some think the artworks will be sold to shady dealers. Others hypothesize the stolen paintings will be traded in the illicit drugs or arms market. Or maybe these paintings will end up with an evil collector. (That scenario probably owes its popularity to Dr. No, in which Bond spots Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington—recently stolen from the real-world National Gallery in London—in a villain’s cavernous stronghold.) It is impossible to say what will happen, but after 25 years investigating cultural property crimes for the FBI and privately, I have learned that the people who carry out such heists tend to be good thieves, but terrible businessmen.
Over the last century, the value of art has sky-rocketed. Thieves, no different from the general public, read the articles published about the incredible sums paid for Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players” (sold privately for more than $250 million) or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (sold for the highest nominal price ever paid at auction). But what art thieves fail to account for is that the theft depletes the value of the art. The value of any painting, regardless of artist, is dependent on three major factors: authenticity, provenance, and legal title. A stolen work has been stripped of its legal title and arguably provenance, leaving little more than paint on canvas.
In the early 2000s, I investigated the theft from the National Museum of Stockholm of two paintings by Renoir and one by Rembrandt, valued at a total of $40 million. The heist was well planned and executed. Thieves set off two car bombs that blocked both main access roads and laid spike strips to divert police. They then stormed the museum’s main entrance carrying machine guns and told both guards and patrons to lie on the ground. As one gunman held the hostages at bay, the others vaulted up the museum’s grand marble staircase to the main galleries. They then cut the wires holding the paintings, stuffed them into a duffel bag, and escaped from the museum using a motorboat docked just outside. The whole robbery took less than two and a half minutes.
Within five years, we recovered all three paintings. The Rembrandt, which was worth $35 million, had sat under a velvet cloth in one of the thieves’ closet for five years. I went undercover for the FBI, and the theives offered to sell it to me for $250,000, less than 1 percent of its open market value. The black market had offered no buyers.
A similar scenario unfolded in Madrid in 2001. Thieves entered an apartment of a well-known Spanish aristocrat, disabled the alarm, and overpowered the lone security guard on duty. They then stole 17 paintings valued at more than $65 million. The thieves then attempted to sell them on the black market for over a year. Working as an FBI special agent, I was able to recover all 17 paintings through a similar undercover sting operation. Again, the black market offered no buyers.
In the end, after all other attempts to sell the stolen artworks fail, the criminals will keep them to use as a negotiation chip. I saw this while working undercover in the south of France. An organized criminal group told me about 75 stolen paintings they had hidden in warehouses. They were unable to sell a single painting, however, they held onto the artworks in the event they needed them to lessen sentences doled out for other crimes.
The stark reality for the thieves who pull off these headline-grabbing capers is there is no market, black or otherwise, to sell a stolen masterpiece. Even in the criminal world, someone who traffics in guns or drugs would have no interest in a stolen painting that cannot be resold when they have cash-convertible goods on hand. These stolen masterpieces will languish in closets and warehouses until they are discovered and returned to their rightful owners by law enforcement operations or simply the passage of time.
Robert Wittman is the author of Priceless, How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.