November 22, 2010

ARCA Lecturer Richard Ellis weighs in on recovery of stolen paintings from Malmö Art Museum

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

Swedish police recovered three paintings that had not been reported stolen from the Malmö Art Museum last month during an investigation into a case concerning credit fraud in the taxi sector. The case was covered here in The Local, Sweden’s News in English. Mark Durney’s Art Theft Central urged police investigators to reveal how and why the paintings were in possession of individuals with ties to a credit card case in an article on October 7 . The ARCA blog sought additional insight on this case from one of its instructors, Richard Ellis, former Director of Scotland Yard’s Arts & Antiquities Unit.

“In my experience, unlicensed taxi services (sometimes referred to as mini-cabs) have frequently been involved in criminal groups, committing such crimes as burglary, fraud and local drug distribution,” Mr. Ellis wrote in an email this month. “I suspect that this was an unlicensed taxi service and therefore it is not a surprise that they were involved in credit card frauds.

“Professional criminals often operate in more than one area of crime and a lot of art recovered by police is found whilst investigating other crimes,” he continued.

Mr. Ellis cited the robbery at the National Gallery in Stockholm in 2000 when three masked and armed robbers walked into Stockholm’s National Museum and took a small self-portrait on copper by Rembrandt and two paintings by Renoir (“A Young Parisienne” and “Conversation”) and escaped in a boat, diverting police by setting cars on fire in nearby streets. Renoir’s “Conversation” was recovered one year later when Swedish police raided the place of known drug traffickers. In 2005, the other two paintings were recovered when police infiltrated a U. S.-based crime syndicate: Renoir’s “A Young Parisienne” was recovered in Los Angeles and Rembrandt’s self-portrait was recouped in Copenhagen. “In this case, the stolen art was used to fund other criminal activities,” Mr. Ellis wrote.

“In the current case, the painting by Munch was stolen because they recognized that in theory it would attract a high cash value,” Mr. Ellis continued in his email response to the ARCA blog. “However, whether they had the knowledge required to capitalize on this is not clear and it is this ability in knowing how to dispose of stolen art that sets an art thief apart from other criminals."

The Munch painting is worth around 10 million kroner ($1.5 million) and was found with two paintings by Gustaf Rydberg and Pär Siegaard. Munch's 1913 “Two friends”, which portrays two dogs and is thought to have been done when the Norwegian painter was living in Germany, is the Malmö Art Museum’s only work by the artist.

Founded in 1841, the Malmö Art Museum collection contains 32,000 works from the 16th century to the present. The museum building from 1937 is in the Malmöhus castle complex, one of the oldest remaining renaissance castles in Scandinavia.

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