Stolen Spencer masterpiece returned to owners


PRESS RELEASE – Jun 3, 2018

Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and Arts Council England

Stolen Spencer masterpiece returned to owners

A valuable painting by one of England’s greatest 20th-century artists has been returned to its owners five years after it was stolen from a gallery.

Cookham from Englefield by Sir Stanley Spencer was on loan to the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham in 2012 when thieves broke in through a window and removed it.

The owners said they were devastated at the loss of the painting, which was of great sentimental value.

However, they were compensated for the loss of the painting by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport under the Government Indemnity Scheme. The scheme provides UK museums and galleries with an alternative to commercial insurance, which can be costly. It allows organizations to display art and objects that they might not have been able to borrow due to high insurance costs.

Five years after the theft of Cookham from Englefield, police discovered the painting hidden under a bed during a drugs raid on a property in West London.

A 28-year-old man was sentenced at Kingston Crown Court in October after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply class A drugs and acquiring criminal property. He also admitted a charge of handling stolen goods. Last month the owners were finally reunited with their painting

Arts Minister Michael Ellis said:

Spencer is one our most renowned painters and a true great of the 20th century. It is wonderful that this story has had a happy ending and the painting has been returned to its rightful owners.

This has been made possible because of the Government Indemnity Scheme. It exists to protect owners when lending their works to public galleries. Without it there would be fewer world class pieces on display across the country for people to enjoy.

Detective Inspector Brian Hobbs, of the Met’s Organised Crime Command, said:

I am pleased to say that the painting has now been returned to its owners. The seizure of the painting was the result of proactive investigation by the Organised Crime Command, which resulted in a significant custodial sentence for the defendant found in possession of the painting.

Detective Constable Sophie Hayes, of the Met’s Art and Antiques Unit, said:

The Art and Antiques Unit was delighted to assist with the recovery and return of this important painting. The circumstances of its recovery underline the links between cultural heritage crime and wider criminality. The fact that the painting was stolen five years before it was recovered did not hinder a prosecution for handling stolen goods, demonstrating the Met will pursue these matters wherever possible, no matter how much time has elapsed.

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891 – 1959) was an English painter known for his works depicting Biblical scenes of his birth place Cookham. He is one of the most important artists of the 20th century and during the Second World War was commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee.

It is estimated that the Government Indemnity Scheme saves UK museums and galleries £14 million a year. In the last ten years of the scheme, only 12 claims for damage and loss have been received. This incident is the first one where an item covered by the Scheme has been stolen and successfully returned to its original owners. In line with the rules of the Government Indemnity Scheme for return of the painting, the owners repaid the amount they had received in settlement of the claim minus the cost of repairs and depreciation.

Notes to editors:

  • The Government Indemnity Scheme is administered by Arts Council England on behalf of DCMS.
  • In the event of loss or damage to an object or work covered by the scheme, the government compensates the owners.

LOST MASTERPIECES – He Stole Priceless Old Masters. His Mom Destroyed Them—And Him


LOST MASTERPIECES – He Stole Priceless Old Masters. His Mom Destroyed Them—And Him


Stéphane Breitwieser

Stéphane Breitwieser stole over $1 billion-worth of art, one of the most prolific art thieves of modern times. He loved what he stole. His mother Mireille, disastrously, did not.

It was a rare, 16th-century bugle that finally took him down.

Stéphane Breitwieser was visiting the Richard Wagner Museum in Switzerland and was captivated by the magnificent brass piece that was one of only three that existed in the world. So he did what came naturally to him after nearly seven years of indulging his love of art—he stole it.

But this time, unlike hundreds of times before, his brazen actions did him in. When he decided to return to the museum two days later to see what else might catch his eye, a security guard recognized him and called the police. Breitwieser’s crime spree had come to an end.

For over six years, Breitwieser, an ordinary Frenchman with an extraordinary love of art, trolled museums and private collections across Europe, helping himself to the pieces that caught his eye. He amassed a private collection of his own, to the tune of 239 pieces of art and priceless artifacts from 172 institutions totaling over a billion dollars. He was one of the most prolific art thieves in modern history.

His crimes against the European art world were bad enough. But Breitwieser committed one other unforgivable sin—he entrusted much of his hoard to his mom.

When the law eventually caught up to him in late 2001, his dear mamanMireille destroyed over 100 pieces of art and precious artifacts that were residing in her home and that were ultimately thought to be worth $30 to $40 million.

It all started when Breitwieser was a young lad in his early twenties. He had embarked on a career as a waiter, working mostly across the border from his hometown of Mulhouse, France, in Switzerland. While that may have been his day job, Breitwieser professed to be a “self-taught art lover.”

In 1994, according to a 2005 article in Forbes, he was visiting the Musée des Amis de Thann in Alsace, France, when he became enraptured by an 18th-century pistol.

It was the lax security around the piece that spurred him to make a move that would eventually define his life. Noticing that the case was unlocked, Breitwieser decided to relieve the museum of their antique firearm.

“The pistol fascinated me. My heart was going 100 miles an hour, I was terrified, but I was driven by passion. I asked myself, ‘What’s holding me back?’” Breitwieser said. “Afterwards, I slept with the pistol beside me—I cleaned the wood, removed the rust; I treated it like a baby I was nursing. But I was still very frightened. Each day for a month I bought the newspaper, but the museum said nothing about the theft—a lot of museums prefer to smother these affairs. Eventually I calmed down.”

In his own memoir and to other journalists, he claimed that his spree began a year later, in 1995, when he and his girlfriend were visiting a castle in Switzerland.

There, he saw an 18th-century painting that wasn’t that valuable, but that reminded him of a Rembrandt.

“I was fascinated by her beauty, by the qualities of the woman in the portrait and by her eyes,” he told The Guardian in 2003. “I thought it was an imitation of Rembrandt.”

So, while his girlfriend played lookout—a role she would embrace for the remainder of his criminal career—he relieved the canvas of its frame, stuffed it under his jacket, and took it home.

He has maintained that his criminal inclination stemmed purely from a passion for the objects that fell victim to his sticky fingers. “I did it because I loved these things, because I simply had to possess them,” he told a writer for Forbes who also noted that he showed “not a shred of remorse.”

But it seems he may have been equally tempted by the lax security that plagues many smaller museums. “There was often no watchman or anything—all you had to do was bend down and pick something up,” he said.

Whether it was the antique pistol or the Rembrandt look-alike who proved his gateway drug, stealing art became an almost instant addiction. Until he was caught in November 2001, the waiter continued to travel around France, Switzerland, and other European countries and filch the treasures that caught his eye.

Particularly early on, these treasures were Old Master paintings. He took Pieter Brueghel’s “Cheat Profiting from His Master,” François Boucher’s “Sleeping Shepherd,” Corneille de Lyon’s “Mary, Queen of Scots,” and Antoine Watteau’s drawing “Two Men.” The most famous Old Master he stole was Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “Sybille, Princess of Cleves.”

But in addition to the Old Master paintings, Breitwieser increasingly helped himself to antique objects and artifacts of value. They ranged from ceramic pieces, vases, jewelry, priceless musical instruments, antique weapons, and much more.

“Looking back on this case, there was a pattern of just one or two objects being taken from different museums. But we thought it was the work of a gang. What happened here was simply unimaginable,” Alexandra Smith, operations manager at the Art Loss Register, told The New York Times.

The art thief wasn’t just exceptional for his audacity—according to experts in the field, serial thieves of fine art are very unusual; he was also unique in what he did with his spoils. Breitwieser wasn’t interested in profiting from his hobby, and he never attempted to sell a single piece. He truly wanted the pieces he took for his own enjoyment.

He stored most of his loot in his bedroom at his mom’s house in Mulhouse, France, and he took the utmost care with each treasure.

He often reframed the canvases before arranging them in his makeshift bedroom gallery in which, according to Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg in Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, he “kept the lights dim and the shades drawn to protect the paintings from fading.”

He did everything he could to care for the art. Everything, that is, except pass his “handle with care” mantra on to his mother.

After Breitwieser was arrested, his girlfriend-cum-accomplice informed his mom of what had happened.

Mireille freaked out. While she initially claimed that she had no idea the value of the works and that she destroyed them out of anger toward her son, many of the authorities involved have suspected that she did what she did out of loyalty.

And what she did turned what could have been an intriguing art theft caper into a tragedy.

Mireille got to work destroying all traces of evidence. She shredded 60 Old Master canvases, putting some of the pieces down the garbage disposal and throwing others out in the trash along with the broken frames.

Then, she rounded up 109 of the artifacts, statues, and antiques her son had collected and she unceremoniously dumped them in the Rhône-Rhine Canal. It is thought that she destroyed around two-thirds of Breitwieser’s entire haul.

Though utterly disastrous, her actions were initially effective. Unfortunately, she and her son were not on the same page.

Once in custody, Breitwieser hoped that the evidence of his crime would help get him out of his bind. He quickly confessed all, told the authorities where they could find his loot, and even, according to Guardian reporter Jon Henley, hoped his cooperation might help him win brownie points that would result in his being asked to advise some of the very same institutions he had robbed.

But when the authorities arrived at his mother’s home a week later, all traces of that evidence he had pointed them to were gone. It was only after ancient artifacts began washing up on the banks of the river that they started to suspect the true depth of the crime. It would take them several more months to get Mireille to confess to her role in the crime.

Given the extent of the destruction to cultural artifacts and priceless works of art, the parties involved got off with relatively light punishments.

Mireille served 18 months in prison, Breitwieser’s girlfriend did six months for her role, and the serial art lover-turned-thief served several years in Switzerland before being sentenced to 26 months in jail in France. In 2006, Breitwieser wrote a memoir titled Confessions of an Art Thief.

Perhaps Breitwieser’s punishment was worse than it seemed. After all, the “eccentric kleptomaniac,” as Smith called him, never stopped claiming he acted out of a love for the art. And in the end, that love was what led to their destruction.

While awaiting his sentencing in a jail in France, Breitwieser attempted suicide. Some reports claimed he did so after learning the fate of his precious treasures.

The Art of Restoration


The Art of Restoration

Chemistry and history resurrect damaged art

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” ~ Degas



Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. While an abstract Picasso appeals to one enthusiast, a Manet depicting realism might be a favorite for another. That subjective beauty is at the heart of what makes art so important and precious to collectors. A painting can tell two people completely different stories and evoke distinct emotions. Artwork brings life to a dull wall and tells stories of those who created it. That’s partly why conserving these pieces of history, these storytellers are critical to maintaining their value.

Preserving and conserving art are different — yet related — practices, both vital to the long-term life of artwork. “Preservation is an important concept, in that proper storage and display will minimize damage and can eliminate the need for conservation,” says Alice Perrit, the owner of House of Frames and Paintings, Inc., more familiarly known to Columbia residents as HoFP Gallery. “Everything, including all art, degrades with oxidation, but providing a proper environment is the best defense as it can even minimize damage caused by disasters, such as fire or flood.”

“Basically by conserving your art in taking care of it, you can prevent damage. If damage does occur, a conservator steps in and does a restoration treatment. Conservation prevents damage; restoration treatment repairs the damage,” says Ginny Newell, owner of ReNewell, Inc. Fine Art Conservation. She has been restoring art for nearly 35 years, offering advice on preventative steps clients can take to conserve their art and prevent damage.

“I’m often asked if restoring art decreases its value,” says Ginny. “The decrease in value happens when the art is damaged, not when it comes to me. By then, the devaluation has already occurred. Art that is no longer in pristine condition never has its full value.”


Thanks to Ginny’s years of experience and her vast expertise, many pieces of damaged art have been restored. The act of restoring is certainly not a simple one. It is a combination of chemistry, art history, and applied art — combined with integrity, light-handedness, and good judgment. It is a chemical process of removing embedded grime and oxidized varnish without harming the paint layer, and then there is structural repair to the canvas or paper if needed. “It’s important to separate the artist’s original work from the conservator’s work,” says Ginny. “A conservator is not trying to alter or disguise anything in the original. You want it integrated, but separate.”


Ginny fills in anywhere the original paint is lost. She does not enhance the image or change it; instead, she strives to return it to its original state as closely as possible. Her efforts require more chemistry than art in many cases. She is often tasked with removing embedded surface grime, smoke, and oxidized varnish. “I have to know all of the layers of the art, what pigments are included, and from what period it was created,” adds Ginny. She does this all from a well-equipped lab, where she carefully examines each piece of art prior to giving the client a treatment proposal.

Expertise like Ginny’s is critical to the Columbia Museum of Art, which must care for the thousands of works in its collections. Will South, Ph.D., chief curator at the museum, works with a number of conservators, each with a specialty, such as sculpture, fabric, wood, or paintings. “When a work of art is going on view, we make sure everything is in tip-top shape,” says Will. “There might be some easy fixes, but sometimes a painting has been scratched or has never been restored and has a host of physical problems, such as holes in the art. These are not such an easy fix. A work of art can take a long time to repair. If we get a loan request and do not have sufficient time to conserve that work, we have to deny the request. We can’t show an artist’s work in a bad light.”

No art lasts forever. It will eventually decay. Much of an object’s condition depends on what it has been through. “A ceramic pot buried beneath the ground for 3,500 years can come up looking pretty good,” says Will. “A drawing left out in the rain is probably completely destroyed. In a museum collection, you find a wide variety of conditions from pristine to irreparable.” Because of this, the museum prioritizes what is restored or repaired first. Again, the museum is responsible for showcasing the piece in its best possible light. The art needs to look the way it did when it was made, as much as that is possible so that visitors to the museum can experience the object in the way it was meant to be viewed.

“People want experiences in their lives,” says Will. “They want exotic food, engaging conversation, unpredictable adventures. They also want authenticity. That food should not be synthetic; the conversation should be honest; that adventure should be real. Conservation allows museums to provide people with authenticity. It restores objects that have suffered damage or decay to their original, or close to it, appearance.”



Will explains that when someone stands in front of the Mona Lisa, they want to see what Leonardo saw, to experience the physical culmination of years of highly skilled work. “They don’t travel all the way to the Louvre to see a 3-D computer simulation of the Mona Lisa, however close that replica may be,” he continues. “People want to identify with the maker and the made, to feel something that arises from direct interaction. Conservators help make that possible. They preserve the objects that make up our culture.”

Those objects can evoke the deepest of feelings within a person. The goal is not to view a painting and have its flaws brought to one’s attention. The goal is to view the piece and be transported in one’s own imagination. This science of conservation enables people this ability.

The Columbia Museum of Art was recently tasked with restoring a portrait of Philip IV by the Spanish artist Juan de Pareja. Pareja was born enslaved in 17th century Spain and grew up to be the studio assistant to Velasquez, who was court painter to Philip IV. “Pareja eventually earned his freedom in part through his skill as a painter,” says Will. “It’s a great story. There are only 10 paintings by him in the world; one is in the Prado in Spain, another in the Hermitage in Russia and one in Columbia.”

The CMA’s portrait was given to the museum in 1950 as a Velasquez, but research later revealed it was a Pareja. The painting had been badly overpainted, while also suffering from paint loss and discoloration. “In short, it was a real mess,” adds Will. The museum wanted to resurrect the painting for a new reinstallation slated for later this year. The painting had not been on the walls for years because of its condition. The museum brought in a conservator who specializes in 17th-century European paintings. “The work took two years and a considerable amount of money to complete. Now, the painting glows with a surface unmarred by past awkward attempts at restoration,” Will says. “We will have the painting on the wall and will be able to share the incredible story of an artist who started his career as a slave and ended it as a free man, with his art-making at the center of his life.”

Ginny also recently had an opportunity to work with Will on restoring a valuable piece of art. The museum purchased a Henrietta Deering Johnston (1674-1729) piece at an auction in New York. Johnston is the earliest recorded female artist and the first known pastelist working in the English Colonies. A small pastel (circa 1712) of a woman’s bust had a terrible stain around the image. Because of the condition of the artwork, the piece was often overlooked at auctions. Will had faith that the art could be restored and called on Ginny’s expertise to do just that. “I reached out to my colleagues to confer on the project, as I often do, and then I came up with a treatment plan,” says Ginny. “Lo and behold, I did fix it, and they now have a jewel of a piece of art.”

Ginny holds to two tenets in her work. First, do no harm, and second, try to make all treatments reversible. She does not want to permanently alter the original art. If a painting has lost a lot of paint, Ginny will consolidate and clean the piece, put an isolating coat of varnish on it, fill the loss and in-paint, and then add a final coat of varnish. Her in-painting is sandwiched between two layers of the varnish, for reversibility now and in the future. “In the grand scheme of things, art conservation is very new, starting in earnest around the mid-1800s and changing as time goes by. The emphasis now is on stabilization just in case there is a better technique developed later, and you want your work to be reversed so the new and improved way can be applied,” she says.



While art preservation can help to improve the most impressive of pieces, it is not limited to the Renoir, the Matisse, the Picasso. It also works for the family heirloom that has been passed down from generation to generation or the portrait of the grandfather who served in World War I. Those pieces are far more precious to families than other priceless works of art; therefore, art and heirloom owners must take the appropriate steps to conserve their works.

“Each work of art should be cared for a little differently, but there are two things that all of them need: stable temperature and humidity,” says Alice. “In addition, the art needs protection from chemical contamination from the air and from inferior framing and storage materials. It needs protection from light, especially UV light.”

All light causes fading, referred to as photo-oxidation. Working with a knowledgeable, professional picture framer is the best source for both information and proper care and materials. Storing photos and drawings in acid-free materials is also important. Acidic papers will stain whatever is against them. If one smokes in the home, paintings will get covered in tar, which discolors the art, sometimes permanently. Simple steps can be taken to ensure that beautiful art — whether purchased, created, or inherited — will continue to bring joy and history for many years to come. And, if all else fails, take it to a conservator and watch the magic happen!


Fresh Hope That a Stolen Caravaggio ‘Nativity’ Could Be Found

Fresh Hope That a Stolen Caravaggio ‘Nativity’ Could Be Found

A reproduction of Caravaggio’s “Nativity” in the Oratory of San Lorenzo, in Palermo, Italy, where the original was stolen in 1969.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

PALERMO, Sicily — On a stormy night in October 1969, thieves broke into the Oratory of San Lorenzo, a small chapel in what was then Palermo’s dilapidated Kalsa quarter, and made off with one of the city’s artistic masterpieces: Caravaggio’s “Nativity” altarpiece.

Investigators, both national and international, never gave up hunting for the lost painting, which is still No. 2 on the F.B.I.’s list of the top-10 art crimes. Leads pursued in the past all led to dead ends. But new evidence presented at the Oratory this week has revived hopes that the painting might still be found — or, at the very least, that its fate might be discovered.

Two officers from the Caribinieri, Italy’s military police, secure the area around the Oratory.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times 
An Italian parliamentary body commonly called the Antimafia Commission presented evidence at the Oratory on Wednesday, reviving hopes that the painting might still be found.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

In the ’60s, no major crime could occur in Palermo without the Mafia knowing about it. So it was natural that investigators looked to Mafia turncoats for clues. Many were interrogated over the years, and some had harrowing tales to tell. One said that the “Nativity” — whose dating flip-flops between 1600 and 1609, depending on which scholars you ask — had been burned in a fire. Another said it had been abandoned and subsequently eaten by mice, or by pigs. Yet another said it had been hidden and was only unveiled during Mafia boss summits. A mobster is said to have used it as a bedside rug.

It was enough to dishearten even the most dogged sleuth.

Rosy Bindi, who leads the Antimafia Commission, in the Oratory of San Lorenzo. “If you find the right thread,” she said, “then everything follows.”CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

Then in May last year, yet another turncoat, Gaetano Grado, told his tale to an Italian parliamentary body commonly called the Antimafia Commission. Its president, Rosy Bindi, said in an interview that she had never been convinced by the rumors that swirled around the painting, and so the commission, which has an investigative mandate, decided to dig a little deeper.

Mr. Grado’s story has given investigators fresh hope.

According to this account, two days after the painting was taken, Gaetano Badalamenti, then one of the top Sicilian mobsters, asked Mr. Grado, who at the time was the Mafia member in charge of downtown Palermo, to look into the theft of the Caravaggio. The turncoat said that he tracked down the thieves, and that the painting, after passing through the hands of several mobsters, had eventually ended up with Mr. Badalamenti. (Mr. Badalamenti spent his last 17 years in a federal prison in the United States as one of the leaders of the so-called “pizza connection” drug trafficking ring. He died in 2004.)

Mr. Badalamenti invited a “very old” Swiss art dealer to see the Caravaggio, according to Mr. Grado. When the dealer laid eyes on it, he “sat and cried, and cried,” to the point that Mr. Badalamenti “thought he was stupid,” Mr. Grado recalled. Then the Swiss man announced that he would cut it into pieces because it would not sell otherwise. The dealer, who is not named in the evidence that has been made public, has since died, commission officials said.

Mr. Grado’s account checked out on various fronts. “He’s the first turncoat with a direct connection to the theft,” Francesco Comparone, the commission’s top councilor, said.

On Wednesday, Ms. Bindi said: “If you find the right thread, then everything follows. It’s clear that Grado was that thread.”

Not everyone, however, was convinced.

For the last 10 years, the Oratory where the theft took place has been managed by the Amici dei Musei Siciliani, a cultural association that promotes art in Palermo. On Wednesday, its president, Bernardo Tortorici di Raffadali, told the dignitaries attending the presentation of the Antimafia Commission’s findings, that he thought Mr. Grado’s story didn’t hold up.

He said that over the years, he had moved two altarpieces — including a high-tech digital copy — that had substituted for the missing Caravaggio “a dozen times.” It was “extremely complicated,” he said, because of the size, weight and position of the canvas above the altar.

The original wooden frame of Caraveggio’s stolen “Nativity” hangs in a chapel adjacent the oratory where it was stolen.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

An operation like this was not something that could be done on the spur of the moment and without a sizable crew, he added. He also pointed out that the thieves had cut the Caravaggio from its wooden frame “without leaving a milligram of paint behind.” It was done with “surgical precision,” Mr. Tortorici said.

“This theft was commissioned,” he said, adding that he didn’t think that line of investigation had been adequately pursued.

Ms. Bindi responded that the commission’s investigation found that the thieves that night “had been under the guidance of two experts in art thefts.” And while the commission found no indication that the Mafia had commissioned the theft, she added, “that doesn’t mean that it didn’t involve people who knew what they were doing.”

Ludovico Gippetto, the president of a Palermo cultural association called Exoart, in the organization’s offices. Mr. Gippetto said he has doubts about the Mafia’s involvement with the Caravaggio.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

Ludovico Gippetto, the president of a Palermo cultural association called Extroart, has also adopted Caravaggio’s “Nativity” for his project “Wanted,” a publicity campaign that involves periodically peppering Palermo with posters of looted artworks on the premise that the better known a work of art is, the harder it is to sell on the black market. In some cases, the strategy has worked, and the works have been anonymously returned. But not in the case of the “Nativity.”

Mr. Gippetto also has doubts about the Mafia’s involvement with the Caravaggio. He said that the daughter of one of the two sisters who were the custodians of the Oratory in 1969 told him that a second object — an item that has not been named in depositions — had also been stolen on the night of the theft, he said. “Why have the police never interrogated her?” he asked.

He’s also been told, “by a source,” that the theft was on commission for “a family so powerful that the police couldn’t even knock on their door,” he said during an interview. He declined to expand further, except to say that the family was not in Italy. “Of course,” he added, “it’s just a hypothesis.”

At least Mr. Grado’s revelations keep the search for the painting alive: The Antimafia Commission’s findings have convinced Palermo prosecutors to open a new investigation into the theft.

Lt. Col. Nicola Candido, the operations commander of the art theft squad in the Caribinieri, Italy’s military police, said that Mr. Grado’s revelations had offered new lines of investigation “involving international police forces,” but none from the United States. He declined to elaborate because investigations were ongoing.

One Caravaggio scholar said she was naturally thrilled that the “Nativity” could still come to light, but was dubious about turncoat accounts. “They haven’t been extraordinarily trustworthy,” Francesca Cappelletti, who teaches at the University of Ferrara, said.

But Ms. Bindi said that the turncoat’s new revelations offered the hope that at least a part of the painting could be recovered. “It would be a way of giving back to the city something that belonged to it,” she said.

Even with a high-quality copy in place, the lost painting leaves a void. In an interview on Wednesday, Leoluca Orlando, Palermo’s mayor, said, “To think that in this moment, this work, or part of this work, could be in someone’s home or a museum — that should upset everyone.”

What’s the motive for museum thefts?


What’s the motive for museum thefts?

James Ratcliffe – May 30, 2018
Gold reliquary containing Anne of Brittany’s heart. Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP/Getty Images

Two recent museum thefts can be taken to illustrate the thinking behind such crimes. One, in Nantes, saw thieves snatch a 16th-century solid gold reliquary containing the preserved heart of a French queen from the Thomas-Dobrée museum. The other, in Bath, involved the theft of Chinese jade and gold from the Museum of East Asian Art.

The Nantes theft was carried out in the night between 13 and 14 April, with the thieves breaking in through a window. Although the loss of the heart of Anne of Brittany, which had only gone back on display on the Tuesday of the preceding week, attracted the majority of attention, the thieves also took a range of gold coins and medals and a gilt sculpture of a Hindu deity – the latter presumably in the mistaken belief that it too was gold. This theft appears to be a prime example of opportunism. The return to display of the reliquary presumably drew the attention of the thieves and they then took the first available opportunity to take it, and other items that appeared valuable to them at the same time. Little planning was presumably carried out if amongst their haul of gold was a gilt sculpture of far lower financial value. The fact that the reliquary was subsequently buried just outside Saint Nazaire (a nearby town), from where it was recovered after police were led to it following two arrests, indicates that it is unlikely that the thieves had thought beyond the initial ‘smash and grab’ element of their crime and had not considered how to dispose of their haul.

In contrast – although superficially similar in that the thieves broke in through a window during the early hours of the morning – the theft from the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath on 17 April appears to have been highly targeted. The pieces taken seem to have been selected based on their quality and cultural significance, rather than simply their material, which ranged from jade to soapstone to zitan wood, or obvious financial value. The thieves made their selection of objects rapidly and fled the scene in under five minutes before the police could arrive, indicating that significant planning must have gone into the robbery. Again in contrast to the Nantes theft, as yet it appears that none of the material stolen has been recovered, nor have any arrests been made.

This is not the first time that a European museum has suffered from what appears to be a targeted theft of Chinese material. Similar thefts have taken place over the last decade in Durham, at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, and at the Château de Fontainebleau. This kind of crime appears to be carried out with a specific view to then selling the pieces stolen to the Chinese market where it is relatively easy to find a buyer, and the chances of a piece being identified are far lower than if it were offered to the Western art market.

Sadly, museums are particularly vulnerable to targeted thefts such as this. Their very nature, with publicly listed catalogues of their collections (the full collection of the Museum of East Asian Art is available online), and outreach programs to ensure that people are aware of their existence and holdings, means that for those who are seeking particular types of item and are prepared to secure them through illicit means they are almost a shop window for criminals. It is essential that museums resist the temptation to keep their collections private, but their public nature does mean that it is also essential to factor in security when planning exhibitions, building works, and storage.

Equally, museums remain vulnerable to opportunistic theft of pieces on display such as appears to have been the case in Nantes. It is rare, but criminals see the pieces within museums as valuable, and thus worth stealing if an opportunity to do so arises. As in this case though, they rarely have a plan for how to turn that value into cash, and thus end up hiding the items when it becomes clear that they are not as easy to fence as they might have hoped.

Ultimately, for the general public, historians, and museums themselves, the outcomes of these thefts are often sadly indistinguishable: the loss of items integral to their collections. Tackling museum theft is dependent upon financial resources for security and policing, but for museums, especially those with lower budgets, an increased awareness of the types of items likely to be liable to targeted theft, and of the risks of opportunistic theft prompted by publicity, is well worth keeping in mind.

James Ratcliffe is director of recoveries & general counsel at the Art Loss Register, London.

OU police release photos of suspected art thief


OU police release photos of suspected art thief

Dan Snyder – May 29, 2018

It’s not exactly a break-in at the Louvre, but police at the University of Oklahoma are searching for a campus art thief.

Police released photos of the suspect carrying a painting out of the Fred Jones School of Art around 2 p.m. on May 14th. Investigators say the suspect is believed to have stolen two paintings from the second floor of the building, and a third from the fourth floor.

Surveillance video caught the suspect in the act.

Thanks to help from the public, police recover 14 pieces of art stolen from St. John’s home


Thanks to help from the public, police recover 14 pieces of art stolen from St. John’s home

Clifford George’s piece “Caplin Run” is seen in this undated handout photo. At least a dozen pricey pieces of art have been stolen from a home in St. John’s, N.L. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary says the heist happened sometime between April 18 and May 17, when the break-and-enter was reported to investigators.  (ROYAL NEWFOUNDLAND CONSTABULARY- HO / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Officers with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary have recovered a sizable number of paintings stolen from a home in the west end of St. John’s, thanks in part to help from the public.

Police announced that 14 pieces of pricey artwork were found Saturday, and said in a release that the discovery was “a direct result of the media release made on Thursday afternoon.”

Pieces by artists Clifford George, Peter Lewis, David Blackwood and Christopher Pratt are among those that were recovered.

Officers continue to search for at least 12 more paintings that remain missing.

The theft happened sometime between April 18 and May 17, when the break-and-enter was reported to investigators.

Police are asking members of the public to come forward if they know the whereabouts of the stolen artwork or the identity of the thieves.

Man attacks ‘Ivan the Terrible’ painting with a pole in Moscow


Man attacks ‘Ivan the Terrible’ painting with a pole in Moscow

Rory Smith & Nathan Hodge – May 28, 2018
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UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1754: In 1581, Ivan beat his son, Ivan in a heated argument causing his son’s death. Depicted in the painting by Ilya Repin, ‘Ivan the Terrible killing his son’ by Ilya Repin. Ivan IV ‘the Terrible’ (1530 – 1584) Tsar of Russia 1533 – 1584. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images) Credit: UIG/Getty Images

Drunk on vodka, a man attacked one of Russia’s most famous paintings with a pole, badly damaging the artwork.

The painting, “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581,” was created by Ilya Repin, one of Russia’s most famous 19th-century artists, and housed at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Painted in 1885, the piece depicts Ivan the Terrible — czar of Russia from 1547 to 1584 — consoling his son after having dealt him a mortal blow in a fit of rage.

The 37-year-old man — one of the last visitors to the museum — entered just before the museum closed, according to a statement by the Tretyakov Gallery. Armed with a pole from one of the painting’s barriers, the man struck the glass case protecting the piece several times.

“The picture is badly damaged. The canvas was broken in three places in the central part of the image on the figure of the prince. The artist’s original frame was badly damaged by falling glass,” the museum said in a statement.

The painting may have been badly damaged, but the face and hands of Ivan and his son were left untouched. Museum employees detained the man before he was able to cause any more damage to the art piece and handed him over to the police, according to the Tretyakov Gallery.

Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs spokeswoman Irina Volk confirmed the incident in a statement, saying “a man had been arrested in connection with the defacing of the painting. He has been charged with damage or destruction of an object of cultural heritage.”

Museum curators and restorers arrived shortly after the incident to evaluate the painting’s damage. With the help of leading Russian specialists, the museum hopes to restore the piece.

State television showed police footage of the unnamed suspect, who said he decided to attack the painting after downing vodka in the gallery’s buffet.

“I wanted to leave, but then dropped into the buffet and drank 100 grams of vodka,” he said. “I don’t drink vodka and became overwhelmed by something.”

‘Significant quantity’ of costly art stolen from Newfoundland home


‘Significant quantity’ of costly art stolen from Newfoundland home

The theft happened sometime between April 18 and May 17, when the break-and-enter was reported to investigators


A Peter Lewis painting is seen in this undated handout photo. At least a dozen pricey pieces of art have been stolen from a home in St. John’s, N.L. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary says the heist happened sometime between April 18 and May 17, when the break-and-enter was reported to investigators. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Royal Newfoundland Constabulary HO / THE CANADIAN PRESS
ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Art thieves have made off with at least a dozen valuable artworks from a home in St. John’s, N.L.

Police say the “significant quantity” of stolen works include American landscape painter Robert Wood’s “The Maine Coast,” prominent Newfoundland artist Christopher Pratt’s “6 cents” as well as pieces by Newfoundland still-life artist Helen Parsons-Shepherd, Spanish artist Juan Giralt Lerin and French painter Antoine Blanchard.

“Numerous pieces of valuable artwork were stolen …. A full inventory list is still being compiled,” the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary says in a press release.

Const. Geoff Higdon said in an interview Friday police aren’t disclosing the value of the stolen art “at this time.”

The theft happened sometime between April 18 and May 17, when the break-and-enter was reported to investigators.

Police say a full list of the stolen works is still being compiled.

“We are still in the early stages of this investigation and it’s not clear whether or not the break and entry was centred around the art or not,” Higdon said.

“There were other items taken during the break and entry, we are still working to finalize a list of those items as well as all of the art taken.”

Police are asking members of the public to come forward if they know the whereabouts of the stolen artwork or the identity of the thieves.