Thanks to my capacious TV recording device – known in my house as the magic box – I rarely watch anything live any more, except the news and weather. And so this weekend I finally got around to viewing a documentary called “Stealing Van Gogh”. Narrated by excitable but unkempt art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, it told the story of the December 2002 theft of two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the subsequent investigation to recover them.
Thanks to my day job interest in money laundering and my hobby research for one of my novels (“Portraits of Pretence”, which concerned art fraud in the post-Napoleonic years), I know a little – a very little – about art crime. And I have blogged before (here and here, for instance) about how criminals can put their money into and through the art markets for various laundering purposes. But this documentary taught me something new (spoiler alert!).
The two pieces were stolen – perhaps to order – by a prolific burglar who climbed the wall of the museum, smashed a window and then abseiled away. He sold them almost immediately – for a paltry 100,000 euros – to one of Italy’s most successful drug dealers. But this fellow did not want them for laundering, or even for selfish viewing in an underground or mountain-top lair, Bond-villain-like. No, he simply wrapped them in tea-towels and hid them under a false floor in his dad’s kitchen near Naples. For he knew his Italian law. And when he was eventually caught, he offered up the two “Van Gogh artworks of inestimable value” (as he described them on his own statement of assets) in exchange for a reduction in his sentence. He bought them, in other words, as bargaining chips. This explains why he wasn’t bothered about which paintings they were; the burglar simply snatched the two nearest the window in the museum. As all the art experts interviewed in the documentary explained rather tearfully, the thieves and the master criminals do not see art as art: to them, it is simply another currency. When used as payment, its value is calculated at 10% of its open market price. And when push comes to shove, the criminals hope that its importance to the art world will work in their favour. The fiends.