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The Art Theft Problem: Politics, Money and the Mafia

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Since the first recorded art heist in 1473 by Polish pirates of a Northern Renaissance triptych, theft has plagued the world of art ever since, although the motivations behind such crimes have evolved from trivial ownership disputes to the dark and murderous world of organised crime. Although, theft also has the power to alter an artworks prominence in history along with giving a newfound appreciation to a work, such as with the most recognisable painting in art history, the Mona Lisa. The famed da Vinci paining was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 by an Italian handyman, Peruggia. The thief believed that he was aiding in cultural repatriation and was planning on returning the piece to the Uffizi gallery in Florence, where he thought da Vinci would’ve hoped the painting to be. Ultimately, the theft garnered so much attention that Peruggia and the paintings capture was an inevitability. This crime perfectly exemplifies the notion of gaining an appreciation of an object, only when it is no longer visible. 

Even in the present, art theft is still as prevalent as ever, with one unknown figure taking advantage of a weakened security system during the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, when they stole an early van Gogh painting from the Singer Lauren museum in the Netherlands. The painting is still yet to be recovered. Netflix has yet again churned out another true crime docuseries, yet this time instead of serial killers, the narrative of this show focuses on the apply named; ‘world’s biggest art heist’, which took place on St Patrick’s Day 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It saw the theft of thirteen works, including pieces by Manet, Rembrandt and Vermeer. All thirteen works still remain missing, and the FBI has valued all of the works’ collective value to be $500m. This case specifically has gained a significant amount of attention due to the theft’s links to the Italian mafia and subsequent findings of murder within the groups involved. The theorised motivations of the theft were to use the paintings as a form of leverage over the law, since returning a piece of high art would lessen a jail sentence due to loopholes in the American justice system, as well as to wield it’s value for favours and power within the criminal sphere. 

Art theft can also be used as a tool for terror used by political groups, as seen in 1974 when the IRA tied up British politician, Sir Albert Beit, and stole $20m in art from his Russborough House estate in Ireland, including works by Goya, Rubens and Vermeer. This crime again exemplifies the power which art is able to wield, yet this time with the intention of intimidation, creating pressure to implement political change. When looking to the works of art now, the events in the 1974 theft are significant in deepening an understanding of the IRA from a historical perspective, as well as highlighting how a theft is able to become a vital part of the art’s provenance. The robbery of art, in some instances, has even been used to warn institutions of a poor security system, which was the case for the bizarre turn of events at the Whitworth Art Gallery in 2003. The unknown perpetrators stole £4m worth of paintings, placed them in a cardboard tube as to protect them and planted them in a decrepit public toilet 600 feet from the museum. Following the paintings’ recovery, a note was discovered attached to the works reading: ‘We didn’t intend to steal these paintings, just to highlight the woeful security.’ Showing that theft, although criminal, has been used as a way to prevent further criminal activity, thereby changing the perception of theft to a positive one. When done with moral motivations, the crime ultimately provided a greater outcome for the future. 

The inevitable solution to the problem would be that technological advancement means theft will be increasingly difficult to carry out without detection, yet privately owned collections of highly prized art could still be left vulnerable due to a potential lack of security or protection. Although, despite developing technology, art theft is an imminent reality which will most probably persist for the foreseeable future, simply due to the vast scale of international criminal trade, where art holds both great influence and power. 

Is art theft with a moral intention acceptable?

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