September 13, 2009

Warhols Likely Stolen for Reward Money

On the night of September 2 a multi-million dollar collection of prints by Andy Warhol, from his so-called “Athlete’s Series,” were stolen from the LA home of collector Robert L. Weisman. The theft is knowledgeably commented upon by ARCA staff member Mark Durney in his blog, Art Theft Central.

There is almost no market, black or otherwise, for stolen art as recognizable as these Warhols, even though they are prints, and therefore multiple copies exist. So, what is the most likely outcome of the situation? There have been so few thefts commissioned by criminal art collectors that they represent a negligible percentage, and the least likely scenario of all. Most likely in this case is a left for ransom, demanding payment either of the theft victim or their insurer. In a case such as this, in which a generous reward has been offered, then no ransom demand is needed. The most probable outcome of this situation is that a “well-meaning” informant will call in a lead that will bring police to the stolen art. Once the art is recovered, the good samaritan will be paid the reward. Likely in cases such as this, the call that leads to the recovery of the art will come from a colleague of the thieves. The reward will therefore be distributed among the thieves via the informant. For a few hours’ legwork, the thieves will have stolen art, abandoned it, had a colleague call in the location to the police, retrieve the reward, and pocket it. Stealing art simply for the reward money may seem like a bad deal for the thieves—the art is, after all, worth many times more than the reward. But one must think of it not as the difference between the actual value of the art and the $1 million reward, but between what the thieves had before the theft (nothing) and the reward money. Not bad for a day’s work. Of course, offering a reward is the best way to ensure that stolen art will be returned to its owner. But in doing so, there is a significant risk that the reward will make its way into the hands of the thieves. And the owner must be very careful to better secure their collection once it is back in their hands, as historic precedent suggests that stolen and returned art is at a very high risk to be stolen again, now that the thieves have learned that art theft pays handsomely.

ARCA was consulted in a recent article for UK newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, regarding this case. To read the article, please see: