Thursday, October 18, 2012

Will we never learn from art theft? Value is in the eye of the holder

"The Rotterdam art thieves won't find collectors for their multi-million dollar loot," thundered The Guardian's Edward Dolnick following the recent multi-million dollar heist from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum.

As usual there was no shortage of experts on hand to sprinkle words of wisdom before the scribbling press pack, in the process effectively congratulating the criminals on a great job and confirming how hugely valuable the works would be on the open market.

But the overriding message — a now wearily familiar tune — was that the thief or thieves were just plain stupid because nobody in their right mind would buy these works and no auction house or dealer would handle them. But of course that's not why the criminals stole them.

If we think about this another way, heists like this aren't stupid at all. If works of this importance had no economic value at all to thieves — what economists like to call 'utility' — thieves wouldn't steal them. The price that a Picasso might make on the legitimate open market is only one kind of value. Art market journalists, economists and others spend a good deal of time pondering how blue-chip works of art can justify the astronomical prices they achieve (see, for example, the perfectly sensible questions arising from the recent sale of Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild for £21 million). So why do we see the potential 'black market' price of a stolen work of art as less meaningful, or useful to those holding it, than the prices achieved for comparable works at a high-end auction? Context is everything.

As some commentators rightly pointed out, there are multiple ways in which these works can deliver a return on the risks involved in stealing them. Many people still smell the rat scuttling around the Turners stolen from the Frankfurt Museum and subsequently returned to the Tate after money changed hands. A certain sfumato shrouds all art theft and recovery. And there are many cards that can be played by not-so-stupid art thieves holding stolen Picassos and Matisses — The Collateral Drugs-and-Arms Card; the Insurance Ransom Card; the Reduce-My-Jail-Time Card; the list goes on.

And finally, as Museum Security Network founder Ton Cremers rightly pointed out, and as the heist confirmed, the Rotterdam Kunsthal was woefully deficient in its security. Owners of works of such art historical importance and market value will surely look more closely in future before loaning those works to poorly secured venues.

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