Thursday, May 20, 2010

Paris art heist: who cares?

Yesterday's theft from Paris's Musée d'Art Moderne of five important masterpieces by Picasso, Léger, Matisse, Modigliani and Braque, made headline news around the world. Is this a cultural loss, or a financial loss? And in any case, who cares?

BBC 2's Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark seemed to find the theft a source of unbridled mirth last night. Throughout the programme, Newsnight's editors and designers used the stolen Picasso Cubist painting (above left) as running gag, a visual metaphor for the jumbled complexities of the international financial crisis and the incomprehensible mysteries of the Conservative Lib-Dem coalition. To cap it all, the programme wheeled in the Guardian's 'art critic' Adrian Searle, who obligingly sneered at the stolen pictures as if they were vulgar daubs by the reviled Jack Vettriano. Searle effectively told the thieves they were welcome to them.

With the international banking system still teetering close to meltdown thanks to the sub-prime mortgage debacle, serious news programmes have clearly got better things to do than ponder a few stolen paintings. But when did they ever?

The media's blithe dismissal of art theft as a trifling peccadillo might be seen as another version of the museum world's careless attitude to the cultural objects in its care. The Paris theft has all the marks of an inside job (anyone who keeps a weather eye on international art crime will testify to how frequently this is the case in major art thefts). Meanwhile, closed circuit television cameras may have recorded an action-packed video of the heist, but what good it will do beyond make for some Thomas Crown-like entertainment is a moot point. CCTV is as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike.

And apparently a motorbike was used in the Paris theft. If the early reports are correct, it would seem that the heist was undertaken by a single thief working alone, although how much prior assistance he received from an insider is yet to be discovered. One is reminded of the one-man theft of Cellini's gold salt cellar from Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum in 2003 and of the bizarre case of Stephane Breitwieser in the 1990s.

I spend two days each week writing and researching at the National Art Library at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Entering the museum one is required to submit to a perfunctory bag check. Quite what the well-meaning guards are looking for as they pretend to shine their little torches into my rucksack is a mystery to me. Guns? Banksy spray-cans? Razor blades? Weapons-grade plutonium? Cheese and pickle sandwiches? Who knows? Once you're in, you're in, and you are not checked on exit. I often reflect on how easy it would be to wander out with some small Renaissance treasure (the inventory of objects stolen from that great museum over the decades would make your eyes water). This goes for any number of museums here and abroad.

Regrettably, art thefts offer yet another illustration of how fundamentally unsustainable the encyclopedic museum has become in the twenty-first century. How to strike a balance between the costs of security and the need to maintain free and unfettered access to the public? To say nothing of the extent to which security costs eat into acquisition costs, staffing, training, conservation, education, heating, lighting, and so on. Something's got to give. More often something's taken.

Perhaps it's time the world's major museum directors organised an international conference to crunch the thorny issue of security? Instead of meditating on devious new ways to stop source nations reclaiming their cultural heritage, perhaps they should be pondering how to keep their collections secure. In fact, those two considerations may not be entirely unconnected. If you can't look after stuff properly, then give some of it back. That might be one way to reduce costs.

Meanwhile, what's the difference between a multi-million dollar Picasso stolen in Paris, and a multi-million dollar Picasso sold at auction in New York? The Picasso stolen yesterday has disappeared into the netherworld of international crime, while the Picasso sold last week in New York has entered a similar abyss — that of the super-rich private collector. In both cases the pictures have been removed from view for an indefinite period and in both cases their new owners will look upon them not so much as art but as a form of collateral.

The paintings stolen in Paris, if they don't become the subject of a ransom demand will doubtless be used to finance other criminal activities — drugs or arms deals, perhaps. As art crime specialists always point out on these occasions, the pictures were not ordered by some exotic Dr No figure and nor will they be saleable on the open market. But given that the art world's most significant heist to date — the theft in March 1990 from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — still remains unsolved and the pictures still at large, it could be years or even decades before the Paris pictures re-emerge.

The question is, who cares?

For more details of the Paris theft, read Catherine Sezgin's helpful piece on the ARCA blog here

The stolen works, illustrated above, are (top to bottom):
Le pigeon aux petits-pois (The Pidgeon with Peas) by Pablo Picasso
La Pastorale by Henri Matisse
Nature-more aux chandeliers (Still Life with Chandeliers) by Fernand Léger
La femme à l’éventail (Woman with a Fan) by Amedeo Modigliani
L’olivier prés de l’Estaque by Georges Braque

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