Dr No strikes again?
Secondly the bad news - another set of priceless paintings has gone missing, this time in Zurich. Four thieves broke into the Emil Buehrle Collection, threatened a guard (with a gun) and walked out with $160 million dollars of Impressionist art including a Monet, a Degas a Van Gogh and, most valuable of all, Boy in a Red Jacket, by Cezanne (pictured). This only a few days after two Picassos were stolen from an exhibition, also near Zurich.
Is this a blip or part of a long term trend? According to one survey, the value of contemporary art has risen by 55% in the past year alone. The record price paid for a painting in 2004, $104 million, has been surpassed four times in the last year, with Jackson Pollock's No 5, 1949, topping the list at $140 million. At the contemporary art sales in New York in 2007, a total of $837 million of sales was achieved by the main auction houses, with more than 120 artists' records broken. The comparative total last November was a mere $550 million.
The Zurich thefts are a potent reminder that the inexorable rise in art prices over the last ten years has come at a cost - As the expression goes, where there’s brass, there’s muck. Often called the world’s second oldest profession, art crime is believed by the FBI to be the world’s fourth largest area of criminal activity after drug smuggling, arms dealing and money laundering, and to be worth some $6bn a year. 90 to 95 percent of stolen art is never recovered.
The question I am asked most often is who might be behind the thefts, given the well documented difficulties in selling them on the open market. Well there are four main theories which I thought I'd share with you now:
1. Dr No - Many claim that these priceless works are stolen to order, with visions of criminal masterminds bent on world domination decking out their hollowed-out volcanoes with Vermeers and Renoirs looming large in people’s imaginations. While there seems little doubt some of this goes on, it is probably not as prevalent as people (like me) would like it to be.
2. Funny Money - More likely, is that they are taken as a form of currency with which to sweeten a drugs deal or to pay for something, then circulating for years in the criminal underworld – in 1986, for example, the IRA leader Martin Cahill stole 18 paintings worth £30 million from Russborough House in the hope of exchanging them for weapons.
3. Ransom - You'll never get the police or the insurance companies to admit to it, but thieves often try to ransom whatever they've taken back to the original owners and money does change hands in the form of finder’s fees and “legal costs.” Some have said, although it's wrong I'm sure, that the Tate went down this path when it successfully recovered its two stolen Turners
4. Laurel and Hardy - The rather more prosaic, but altogether more likely answer is that most of these thefts are entirely opportunistic, the thief only belatedly realizing the value of what they have taken and the difficulty of shifting it. This certainly appears to be the case with the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, found last year.
The early signs are that the Zurich heist was a Laurel and Hardy affair - two of the paintings have been recovered already, dumped in a car. The question is, when will the other two turn up? Assuming the panicked thieves haven't already burnt them ...