Monday, October 22, 2012

Rotterdam Art Heist: Real Theft, Real Value, Real Business

I’m afraid I just can’t leave this one alone.

Referring to the perpetrators of the recent multi-million dollar Rotterdam art heist, retired FBI art investigator Robert Wittman has told America’s National Public Radio channel: “...they don't have a plan for monetizing the artworks.”

Bob Wittman has many years of experience as a cop, but, with respect, Bob, how do you know what plans the Rotterdam art thieves have, or don’t have? Law enforcement agencies currently know nothing about these people, their nationalities, their motives, or the channels in which they move. If we did know from deep past experience, then more of these crimes would have been solved. The truth is our lamentable record in cracking major art thefts is surpassed only by our laughable failure properly to secure our galleries and museums.

Instead all we have on the Rotterdam heist are a few seconds of grainy CCTV camera footage that might have been shot by Eisenstein on a bad day. So will someone please tell me the purpose of what Kunsthal director Emily Ansenk herself described as a “multi-million-euro high-tech...state-of-the-art security system” if all it can do is mimic out-takes from early Expressionist cinema?

And the Oscar goes to....the CCTV camera companies! (for pulling off the greatest multi-million-dollar heist of all).

Asked whether art thieves, unable to sell their works, end up destroying their loot, Bob Wittman opined, “They don't destroy them because they know there's a lot of value.”

And that is surely the issue, despite what just about every media channel has been peddling over the past week — that these works have no value (because they can't be sold). But who said the thieves intend to sell them?

There is value in stolen art and like everything else it is represented by a price. It may not be the price a conventional collector or a dealer might pay on the legitimate market. It certainly wouldn’t be what an open public auction would bring. None of these routes to market are available to art thieves. But that doesn’t mean there is no value in these stolen works. The thieves know there is value; ergo, they are not stupid. I’d venture they are not even “terrible businessmen” as Mr Wittman contends. They may not conform to Bob Wittman's model of what a businessman should be, but that doesn’t mean these people are not good at their own branch of business. It may be dark and subterranean, but it’s still business and they may be good at it, otherwise they would not do what they do. (They beat a “multi-million-euro high-tech...state-of-the-art security system” for starters.

That is the real economy of art theft and if we treated these crimes (and yes, their perpetrators) with some (albeit grudging) respect we may get closer to cracking them...and to properly defending our museums.

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