Fine Art Notebook™

The art world in general, NY, South Florida and Italy in particular…

How To Steal A Masterpiece…

with 7 comments

Women with Fan by Modigliani is among the five works stolen from the Musee d’art Moderne Paris.

I can’t get this Paris art theft off of my mind.

There are so many questions. But the most pressing: who will buy such infamous works of art? The art world is a small place.  Collectors that have the money and the knowledge to purchase such works are an elite group that are interconnected with dealers, curators, and other art aficionados.

My guess is that the works will end up in China. Over the past decade the Chinese have started to show interest in, and to collect, works by Western artists. Plus the Chinese have the ability to retain the anonymity that would be required to hide such infamous paintings, as well as the money to purchase them. Think about it. Can you name a Chinese billionare? It wouldn’t be like selling to, say, Richard Branson, or another elite buyer connected to the Western art scene.

Art theft is glamorous, albeit a crime. Handling great works of art is no easy task, which leads me to believe that those involved know about art and are educated enough to keep these works intact. Otherwise what’s the point? I mean if you’re going to steal something art is not necessarily the easiest thing to get away with.  And the newspaper reports are saying that the thief took great care when cutting the canvas paintings from their frames.  This was not a crime of haste.  This was planned.

The whole incident reminds me of that wonderful scene from ‘The Thomas Crown Affair” where Pierce Brosnan, quite elegantly, steals the Monet:

Brosnan depicts a cunning mind, bold and confident enough to work in a busy museum gallery in broad daylight.  Well, art thieves haven’t gotten that clever yet.  Neither this theft, nor the one at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, another infamous art theft, was quite so bold.  The latter happened in March twenty years ago.  Are they connected to each other?  I actually think they are.  There aren’t that many people who could actually pull this off, or would want to.  And the crimes are eerily similar.

Did they have these specific works in mind? They certainly picked an array of great artists – Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Leger and Matisse. They’re all European painters, they all worked within the same time period.  I believe they did have these specific works and artists in mind.

Pablo Picasso ( 1881-1973) Le pigeon aux petits-pois, 1912
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) La Pastorale, 1905
Fernand Léger (1881-1955) Nature-mort aux chandeliers, 1922
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) La femme à l’eventail, 1919
Georges Braque (1882-1963)  L’olivier pres de l’éstaque, 1906

Of course most of the artists at the Musee D’art Moderne de la ville Paris would’ve overlapped.  However, the thief (or, I dare say thieves)  would have to have had a specific buyer ready before the theft. Otherwise, how do you unload paintings that everyone in the world is now aware have been stolen?

He knew exactly which works to take.  He only spent fifteen minutes in the museum.  Fifteen minutes to steal works that are valued at over $200 million (probably more with the way the art market has been recently).   The painters were all, at least in the stolen works, brilliant colorists that pushed towards abstraction and redefined what painting was to some extent.  This was a pivotal period in the history of art. (The Guardian always has such brilliant art coverage,  and the Jonathan Jones post about the works provides some details about each specific work and why it is important. )

Can you imagine?  Somewhere right now, as the art world is a flutter, someone is sitting in a room admiring these five canvases (and probably drinking very expensive wine). 

If it were me, I’d be touching them and turning them sideways , wanting to see the peaks and valleys of the paint so that I could feel close to the artist as I imagined the way his hand moved with the brush.  Painting is intoxicating for me, both as an art historian and as an amateur painter myself.  I quite often set off the security alarms because I get too close to the works at museums.  But I want to see each brushstroke. I want to see each moment where the artist paused, each delicate dot or sweeping stroke. 

I want to feel the dry paint against my fingers and smell the canvas to see if the smell of oil paint is still pronounced or if time has wiped it clean. 

The smell of oil paint is like a drug for me.  It conjurs up warm memories of hanging out in artist’s studios in New York City in the late eighties and later at the student’s studios and the Visual Arts building at SUNY Purchase.  Artist are the only people I can absolutely tolerate under any given circumstance without exception.  Artists have been my most inspiring friends and my most trusted confidants.  If you know an artist, grab hold of them and never let them go.  Great character serves as the foundation for the ability to accurately, or abstractly, observe and depict the nuances of life. 

Whoever buys these stolen works, or possibly arranged for these works to be stolen, must share my addiction.  They won’t even be able to show them off.  But, if you love painting, like some of us do, that’s OK because this is a love that isn’t looking to brag.   Just being in the same room with these canvases would conjure images of Paris salons, beautiful women, yearning sadness….all the alchemy needed for great art.  It would be the clandestine love of a lifetime.

Somewhere right now, somewhere in this vast world, yet under the same sun,  someone is sitting in a room with that stunning Modigliani…

If it were me, I would be riding a mile-long high.


7 Responses

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  1. I love the Thomas Crown Affair movies (old and new versions). Can’t you imagine these stolen paintings hanging in someone’s home with the owner telling everyone they are marvelous knockoffs?

    I enjoyed reading this blog post and feel like I’ve found an online treasure!


    June 9, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    • Roberta – thank you so much for the lovely comment! I think we are kindred spirits!

      Jenifer Vogt

      June 9, 2010 at 9:24 pm

  2. i liked to have discovered you today . i am going to follow you closer now .
    all the best .
    Caio .

    Caio Fernandes

    June 10, 2010 at 12:52 am

    • Caio,

      Thank you so much! Let me know where I can find you online.


      Jenifer Vogt

      June 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm

  3. I just want to let you know that I really enjoyed this post! There is something so intriguing about an art heist, seems so brazen and truly demonstrates how important at is.


    Sally @ speakartloud

    June 25, 2010 at 1:35 pm

  4. I just like my Haystacks!


    July 11, 2010 at 4:22 am

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