The Genteel
April 16, 2021


Waterloo Bridge, London (1901), Claude Monet. Source:
La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune (1919),
Henri Matisse.

How much damage can be done in two minutes? Try £40 million worth. And that's on the lower end of loss estimated by The Art Loss Register. On October 16, in a matter of a few ninja-swift moments, seven paintings were lifted from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, including works by Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse and Monet. The paintings were part of the illustrious Triton Foundation art collection, displayed for the first time as part of the museum's 20th anniversary celebrations. No guards were on duty at the time and after the automatic alarm sounded, Dutch police arrived to the crime scene three minutes later - one minute too late.

The Rotterdam art heist is being called the biggest art theft in 20 years, after cases like the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, when the enigmatic, smiling portrait went missing from the Louvre for more than two years before coming into the possession of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. 

"There are many different categories of art theft and art crime," says international art and cultural heritage lawyer, Bonnie Czegledi, who has written the book, Crimes Against Art. "Some people steal on a lark: they've just stolen a painting and it's worth a lot of money but the painting has been defaced, so the culprit might throw it in a ravine or dumpster because they don't know what to do with it. Sometimes it's insurance fraud, but that happens rarely. And sometimes it's an obsession, like the thieves that steal books because he has to have books. Sometimes it's art napping and the thieves will steal a painting for ransom. Many times, the theft is an inside job within a gallery, as well. An art heist, so to speak, which is the glamorous style that gets reported."

Czegledi, who also aids investigations and helps uncover the people involved in manufacturing demand and setting taste in the market, says time is of the essence for both the thief and the art establishment, since art trafficking can be a deal done overnight and over continents - depending on where the marketplace is. "It's not just a question of arresting the thief or the culprit who's doing the stealing. We have to ask, 'who are the conduits?' and 'where is this material going?' Otherwise, this problem will thrive."

What is a museum like the Kunsthal to do? Every moment counts; the sooner the theft is reported to databases, such as Interpol and the FBI, the greater the chance that the art can be identified, tracked and recovered. Interpol and the FBI have databases of stolen art that are accessible to the public, "So when people want to purchase art, they can check those databases to make sure it hasn't been stolen," says Czegledi. Reporting to customs can also prevent the art from travelling outside the border.

For what is known about the stolen paintings from Kunsthal, it's very unlikely that they will be successfully sold because they're so famous. "They are worthless, they can't sell them," says Christopher Marinello of The Art Loss Register, the world's largest database of stolen art. "However, to thieves they can trade [the paintings] for weapons, guns, they can use them for a get-out-of-jail-free card. They can try to make some demands for a reward from some insurance company or try and get some sort of a ransom out of them." Ton Cremers, founder of the Museum Security Networkbelieves that the "paintings will remain in the crime scene for many years. Maybe because they can't sell them they might destroy them, but again it's impossible to sell them."

My feeling is that reproductions can be no way equal to the art itself. It can serve a purpose, it can inspire you to seek out the original. But you have to really experience the original.

And while we might want to believe that Thomas Crown is dashing, art theft is a weighty matter. "Art theft is a growing multi-billion dollar illegal economy, second only to drugs and arms smuggling. I guess it's perceived as a softer victim of crime, but it does harm communities and future generations by robbing them of rightful cultural knowledge," says Czegledi. In what she calls the "virus of the counterfeit," stolen originals are replicated as counterfeits, and the market is flooded with fakes. As a result, the original art is devalued because inferior quality counterfeits are widely available. "There's nothing wrong with reproducing art. What's wrong is selling it as something it's not, with the intention to deceive," says Czegledi.

But reproducing art doesn't sound so bad when it means getting the public more acquainted with art that it might not have appreciated otherwise. This puts into question the access that the public has to art and the role of galleries and museums. Jon Lackman, art historian and journalist, comments on who is responsible for educating the public about art. "[Compared to 20, 30, 40 years ago], I would say that museums have been increasingly interested in their education mission, and have brought many, many more people through their doors than they used to. I think many people now are [more] aware of art - seeing art - than they used to be, at least in the United States. How they're actually learning or being changed by the art is another question. But three million [visitors] is better than one million."

On galleries, Lackman believes that their primary role is commercial; whether as revenue for the gallery or for exhibiting artists, or simply to help collectors find art they want to live with. "The education mission in a gallery is certainly secondary," he says, explaining that galleries are committed to educating the collector to aid in their buying decision, which in the long run, "educates the public if they succeed in making the artist more famous."

Do reproductions challenge the gatekeeping function of galleries and museums? As Czegledi warned, reproductions are fine as long as they are not being sold with the claim of being original. Some museums are making reproductions more accessible through online catalogues, such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The gallery's open access policy for images of works of art, presumed in the public domain, offers downloadable images, "free of charge for any use, commercial or non-commercial," believing that, "increased access to high-quality images [...] fuels knowledge, scholarship, and innovation, inspiring uses that continually transform the way we see and understand the world of art."

What, then, is the value of an original, in an age of digital reproduction? What ballyhoo of the massive loss from the Kunsthal Museum? "People have been arguing about this since Walter Benjamin," remarks Lackman. "My feeling is that reproductions can be no way equal to the art itself. It can serve a purpose, it can inspire you to seek out the original. But you have to really experience the original." Czegledi agrees, "Cultural heritage crime robs us of an intangible value, rather than tangible value."

Tête d’Arlequin (1971), Pablo Picasso.

To conclude the matter, I offer an ending that is not unique, but one skillfully crafted by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: "[...] Technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room. The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated [...] The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced."



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