Judge delves into the ugly business of art crime


Judge delves into the ugly business of art crime


Judge Arthur Tompkins has become a world-leading authority on art crime.

Stealing beautiful art is an ugly business.

That’s according to Judge Arthur Tompkins who, by day, presides over cases in the District Court – everything from criminal to civil suits – but, in his spare time, turns his attention to art. More specifically, art crime.

In the past decade, Tompkins has become a leading authority on crimes involving artistic masterpieces. He co-founded the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust, travels to Italy each June to teach the Art in War component of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) annual postgraduate programme and has contributed to and edited books about art crime.

His own book, Plundering Beauty, will be launched in New Zealand this month. It’s subtitled A History of Art Crime During War, reflecting his area of interest. Based on his lecture notes, the book covers 2000 years of wartime art crimes, from classical antiquity through to contemporary conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In many conflicts – the Crusades, the Thirty Years’ War, Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and World I and II – art has been stolen or destroyed, becoming a weapon in the wider fight for hearts and minds.

Tompkins says art is part of the shared heritage of humankind and to take it, desecrate or destroy it – as the Taliban did with the Buddhas of Bamiyan – is to strike at the very heart of a culture and what it may hold sacred.

“When you destroy something, it can be a signal to go ahead and destroy a whole culture.”

Outside wartime, he says a belief has developed that the perpetrators of art crime are urbane thieves interested in masterpieces because of their beauty. In fact, art is frequently damaged when it’s stolen by thieves who are looking for something that’s relatively easy to transport, often to use as collateral for loans to buy drugs or weapons.

Tompkins says though art might be easily transportable, it’s not easy to sell legitimately and more opportunistic thieves, realizing what they’ve taken is so recognizable, may instead seek a ransom.

“When you hear news stories about a missing masterpiece the police find in a specific bus station locker, you have to wonder how they knew to look there and it’s probably because a ransom has been paid.”

A year after two rare $1 million paintings by Gottfried Lindauer were stolen during a ram-raid at Parnell’s International Art Centre, Tompkins has no idea why these artworks were stolen or what could have happened to them.

“It could cover the whole spectrum [of why art is stolen] between an opportunistic theft to a commissioned one,” he says, adding that there’s probably a lot more art crime in NZ than we realize.

The opportunity to research art crime and teach followed a chance meeting in a Parisian bar 10 years ago. It wasn’t just any old bar but one at Interpol’s General Secretariat in Lyon, France where Tompkins was at a conference on forensic DNA. He struck up a conversation at the bar, thinking he was talking to a fellow conference attendee, but the man worked for Interpol’s Stolen Art Unit.

“I had no idea Interpol had such a thing but was fascinated by the stories he told.”

On the long flight home, Tompkins realized a several of the issues he was working with Interpol on – cross-border laws and the interaction between different countries’ legal systems – were relevant to stolen art.

Waiting for a jury to return at Kaikohe District Court, he looked up more on Interpol’s website about art crime and learned of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. Contacting its founder, Noah Charney, he was invited to write a chapter for a book of art crime essays he was editing.

The following year, he was in England and figured he might as well travel to Umbria, where ARCA’s first Art Crime Conference was on. There, he got an invitation to return in 2010 to teach the Art in War course and has been back every year since.

“It’s a tough thing, having to abandon a New Zealand winter for an Umbrian summer each June…”

Stealing beauty

The Four Horses of San Marco.

• Tompkins’ favorite piece of stolen artThe Four Horses of the Basilica San Marco — taken from Rome to Constantinople around 400-500CE, then from there to Venice by the Fourth Crusade in the opening years of the 13th century, then to Paris by Napoleon, but back again to Venice after a mere 17 years. They are the only surviving cast quadriga (a chariot drawn by four horses) from the Classical World and it’s extraordinary they’ve survived at all. They were moved from their centuries-old home above the main door to the Basilica, looking out across the Piazza San Marco in Venice, in the 1980s to much-reduced circumstances inside a small museum upstairs in the Basilica. But they are still a charismatic and haunting and astounding artwork.

Mona Lisa.

• Stolen but recovered: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa — she of the enigmatic smile — hangs in the Musee du Louvre in Paris and is impossible to value. The painting was stolen in 1911 and the Louvre closed for an entire week as the theft was ineptly investigated. It was returned to the Louvre three years later after the thief, former Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia, tried to sell it in his native Italy. He’d kept the painting in a suitcase in his Paris apartment for much of the time he’d had it, taking it out occasionally to gaze at.

Poppy Flowers.

• Stolen and still missingPoppy Flowers (also known as Vase and Flowers or Vase with Viscaria) was painted by Vincent van Gogh in about 1887 possibly as a tribute to an older artist, Adolphe Monticelli, whose work influenced van Gogh’s. Though the painting is relatively small, it’s believed to be worth about US$50 million. It was taken from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo in 2010 and, remarkably, had already been stolen once before in 1977 but recovered 10 years later. It remains missing, despite a substantial reward on offer for its recovery.

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

• Plundered by the Nazis but returned 70 years later: Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was the star of the Helen Mirren film Lady in Gold. Painted in Vienna in the early 20th century, it was taken by the Nazis at the beginning of World War II and ended up in the Galerie Belvedere in Vienna after the war. There followed the long obstruction of its return to owner Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer’s heirs by the Austrian state and the Viennese art establishment. Its return after arbitration and its ending up back on public display in New York is just recognition of the injustice done by its theft. The Lady’s long story is a remarkable tale that epitomizes much of the history of art crime during war.

The golden frame is all that remains of Solomon J. Solomon’s Psyche, stolen from the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch.

• Local mystery: Stolen from Christchurch 75 years ago and still badly missed: Solomon J. Solomon’s Psyche. This large, typically Victorian, painting exists now only in black and white photographs. It was taken during an overnight burglary of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch in June 1942, with the frame and the stretcher left behind. Psyche had originally been purchased by the Canterbury Society of Arts in 1907, during Christchurch’s 1906-1907 International Exhibition, and donated to the Robert McDougall Gallery in the early 1930s. The painting has never been seen since that fateful June night.

– Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime During War by Arthur Tompkins (Lund Humphries Publishing)

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