January 25, 2011

Artist Profile: Edvard Munch, Part Three, The Thefts

By Therese Veier

Munch is one of a few Norwegian artists that have a global market of buyers and collectors. The value and prices for his art have increased, coinciding with an increase in thefts.

On February 23, 1988, in the middle of the night, the Munch painting “Vampyr” was stolen. The thief climbed into the Munch Museum through an open window. With no alarms attached, it was easy to steal the world-famous painting. This was not a planned theft, rather an act of impulse triggered by the open window. Iconic art such as “Vampyr” is impossible to sell, and not knowing what to do with the painting, the thief decided to return it. In August, he walked straight into the police station, carrying “Vampyr” under his arm, hoping this would lead to a milder sentence for a big jewellery theft he had committed in June. The thieves were convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.

Unfortunately, the National Museum in Oslo was not that lucky in 1993 when Munch’s "Portrett studie" a portrait of his sister, was taken from the walls during the museum’s opening hours. The painting has never been recovered. The experience of art crime investigators is often that if stolen art is not found shortly after the theft, it can disappear into the black market for years.

A year after this, in 1994, a few hours before the grand opening ceremony for the Lillehammer-Olympic Games, the National Museum in Oslo was again victim of a Munch theft. This time the museum’s version of "Skrik" (The Scream) was stolen. Knowing that most of the police force would be occupied with security at the Olympics, the confidant thieves planned and executed a theft they knew would take all media attention away from the Olympics and ridicule Norway. The thieves entered the museum using a ladder, smashed a window, climbed inside and stole “Skrik”. They pinned an art postcard on the empty museum wall with the words, “Thanks for the poor security”. The theft took 50 seconds. An inexperienced guard did not react correctly to the museum alarm, and camera images were poor. The theft created headlines worldwide. How could this happen? Was it really that easy to steal a national treasure? With the professional aid of Scotland Yard and Charley Hill, who managed to convince the thieves that the Getty Museum wanted to buy the work back, “Skrik” was recovered. It turned out that the brains behind this brazen theft was Pål Enger, who previously stole “Vampyr” from the Munch Museum. Enger was sentenced to six years in prison for this theft and other petty crimes, his companion, got three years. Museum security was declared a national issue that should be taken serious.

After a few quiet years the Munch Museum experienced Norway’s most brutal art theft so far. On the 22nd of August 2004, both “Skrik” and “Madonna” were stolen by armed robbers during the museum’s opening hours. Shortly after the theft a student at the art academy in Oslo, Malo (Hammaya Rashid), solicited a stunt claiming the thieves had burnt the artworks in fear of getting caught, and given him the ashes from which he had created a new work, “Munch masks”. Lars Fr. Svendsen, a philosophy professor, called the idea brilliant. If the masks really contained the ashes from “Skrik” and “Madonna” this would make Malo’s work one of the most important artworks in the 21 century, and even if they don’t it is still a very interesting and provocative work. Criminality as an art form has never really been explored, but will probably increase in the future, Svendsen stated to the press. Hopefully the majority do not share his views, and tests showed that Malo’s “Munch masks” did not stem from the stolen works.

Later investigation revealed that the theft was a diversion to get the police occupied searching for the paintings while the thieves could execute the largest money theft in Norway (57,4 million Norwegian kroner), the NOKAS robbery. When the NOKAS case came on hearing David Toska, the leader, offered to return the stolen Munch works if certain demands were met, like more frequent visits from his girlfriend. His demands where never granted. Toska and his gang were sentenced for the NOKAS robbery, but Toska was never tried for the museum theft. In May 2006, three men were convicted and sentenced for the Munch robbery, but the artworks remained lost. Two years and nine days after “Skrik” and “Madonna” were stolen from the museum the police found the artworks in Oslo. They were damaged, but could be restored. No reward was paid for the recovery of the works, and no new convictions issued.

To summarize, my impression is that thieves view art thefts as easy, a prank to get media attention, to brag about or as a cover up for their “real” theft. The thieves are tough criminals. Of course museums cannot always prevent art from being stolen, but research and knowledge about art crime, correct security measures and special art crime investigators is necessary.

Databases to register stolen art is an important tool; unfortunately, Norway does not yet have a national database for stolen art.


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