Laura Gascoigne: Crime Without Punishment

In May, policemen with shovels moved in again on 79-year-old mobster Robert Gentile’s Connecticut ranch. It’s the third time they’ve searched the property and the second time they’ve dug it up in the hope of finding the 13 masterpieces, including Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. A few years ago Gentile boasted in jail that he knew the whereabouts of the loot, a mistake the old Mafioso – and his missus, if he still has one – is presumably regretting.

With the $5 million reward still unclaimed after 26 years, expectations of the works’ survival are vanishingly slim. According to the Art Loss Register’s reckoning, 15% of missing masterpieces never reappear, but the fact that some do keeps hope alive. Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter to Her Maid, stolen from Russborough House in 1986 by Dublin underworld ‘General’ Martin Cahill in 1986, was tracked down seven years later by Scotland Yard Art and Antiques Squad sleuth Charles Hill, and of course the Tate got back its two Turners nicked from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in 1994 after eight years of dodgy negotiations with Serbian gangsters and the payment of a £3 million ransom, ahem, reward for information.

If museum heists seem to have passed their heyday, it’s because WikiArt-educated criminals have come to realise that world-famous paintings can’t be shifted. There is still idiocy among thieves, however. The works by Monet, Matisse and Picasso stolen by Romanian gangsters from the Kunsthal Rotterdam in 2012 were eventually incinerated by one of their mothers, on the principle that ovens are the best place for hot potatoes. Some mobsters do ’ave ’em. But museum thieves with half a brain today make sure of their market (black if possible) in advance. Hong Kong was the destination of the Chinese antiquities nicked from English regional museums in 2012 in a spate of burglaries by the romantically named Rathkeale Rovers. Limerick tinkers they may be, but the Rovers twigged that profit margins are wider on intact jade carvings than on melted down Henry Moore bronzes, and there’s less heavy lifting involved.

Like the hoary ‘Diamond Wheezers’ who tunnelled into Hatton Garden last year, the Rovers were good old-fashioned breakers-and-enterers – the last of their three incursions, into Durham’s Oriental Museum, was through a brick wall. In the digi-crime era, the public has a special affection for analogue thieves. We relish the effrontery, ingenuity and occasional battiness of the stubbornly unmodernised criminal enterprise. We have a particular soft spot for the crackpot with a social conscience like John Bunton, who lifted Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington though an open toilet window at the National Gallery in 1961 in aid of his unemployed bus driver father’s protest against the imposition of the BBC licence fee on the link poor. And it pleases us to think of art-loving thieves enjoying quiet possession of their