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 poor. And it pleases us to think of art-loving thieves enjoying quiet possession of their booty, as Vincenzo Peruggia did for two years with the Mona Lisa after liberating her from the Louvre in 1911 with the aim of repatriating her to Italy. Peruggia’s mistake was to expect a reward for his patriotism – a thief has to live – but became a national hero on his arrest.

Sadly, the ‘gentleman thief’ and the ‘cachet crime’ are becoming history – one reason why Lund Humphries’ new publication Crime and the Art Market by Riah Pryor is not the page-turner you might expect. A former art crime researcher at Scotland Yard and assistant art market editor at The Art Newspaper, Pryor promises in the preface to address the issue of “whether the art market, with its opaque structures and secretive ways of doing business, is fundamentally facilitating criminal activity.” She looks at different categories of crime – forgery, theft and trade in looted antiquities – and different attempts, official and unofficial, to deal with them.

In the case of looted antiquities, the book is a depressing catalogue of international declarations, conventions and protocols endlessly wriggled out of by rich ‘market’ countries to the continued despoliation of poor ‘source’ ones. We British are expert at deferring ratification: it took us until 2002 to ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and last year, when finally ready to ratify the 1999 protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, we ran out of parliamentary time. On the domestic front, an equally dismal picture emerges of a police force that is underfunded, sclerotic and generally indifferent to a crime it (and the mass of the public) considers low priority. The recovery of stolen art is now mainly left to private consultants with police backgrounds – money attracts cops as well as robbers – and justice is more quickly (though expensively) achieved through the civil courts.

It’s hard to know who this book is for. It won’t teach professionals anything they don’t know and amateurs will find it disappointing. After challenging the view “that criminals involved in art (particularly forgers) are deserving of an admiration not offered to criminals targeting other markets”, Pryor can hardly regale us with tales of their exploits. She seems equally loath to investigate the shady financial practices that have turned the art market into a global ‘marché ouvert’ for anyone rich enough to retain the services of Mossack Fonseca. The chapter headed When is a Problem a Problem? would be better titled When Is a Crime a Crime? The answer, she suggests, is when the money says so: laws are enforced “where patterns of criminal activity threaten the market’s profit margins.” On page 147 comes the understatement of the century: “Secrecy around the identities of those involved in a transaction, combined with the highly subjective and dynamic value of cultural property, can lead to fears of market manipulation.” Well I never.

You can’t escape the feeling throughout this book that its author is covering her back in case she never works in the art world again. Her conclusion, when she reaches it, is no conclusion at all: “With no quantifiable means by which to determine how many professionals are tempted into criminal activity and how this compares to other markets, any sweeping conclusion of art market behaviour only ever seems to be based on a foundation of snapshots, gut feeling and anecdotes.” In other words, the exercise is pointless. Still, a few more anecdotes would have leavened the loaf, and some observations from the horse’s mouth might have raised the philosophical tone. Take this pearl of wisdom from the late lamented Peter Scott, cat burglar to the stars and author of Gentleman Thief: “The people I burgled got rich by greed and skullduggery. They indulged in the mechanics of ostentation – they deserved me and I deserved them. If I rob Ivana Trump, it is just a meeting of two different kinds of degeneracy on a dark rooftop.”

Now that Ivana Trump’s ex-husband is running for President of the United States, will anything change? I’ll give the last word to Charles Hill, who told a Guardian interviewer in 2006: “The amount of beauty matched by moral turpitude in the art world generally, but specifically in the world of art crime, is fascinating. There’s a great fluctuating moral tide and people just bob along on it.”

Ten years on, the fascination is becoming morbid as the tide of turpitude keeps rising with no sign of any flood barriers going up.  

Laura Gascoigne
The Jackdaw