January 9, 2012

Bonne Année: Museum Theft in Greece Ends Holiday Weekend

Picasso's Woman's Head
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Reports from Istanbul bumped by museum theft in Greece.

A few kind and loyal readers have emailed me as to the lack of posts on this blog for the past month. I truly had intended to post from either Ankara or Istanbul but between preparing for a Christmas in a Muslim country (easier than you would think) and re-exploring the cultural institutions of both cities, I fell victim to the charms of Turkish life.

In Istanbul I feasted on roasted chestnuts from street vendors and dreamed of Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire as I traveled daily on the municipal ferry which carried me from Asia where I lodged to Europe where I wandered the narrow streets of Pera near the Galata Tower, perfecting the pedestrian survival skills needed to dodge the fearless drivers of this 8,000 year old city of 13 million people.

Sketch by Caccia
Back in my sunny garden in Pasadena, with my back to the dried squirrel blood left by the hawk who had moved into our yard during our absence, I had planned to start this week with a series of posts about Anakara's Anatolian Civilizations Museum and Istanbul's Archaeology Museum; however, the news coming in from The Museum Security Network this morning featured a robbery at Greece's National Gallery.

According to Reuters: After setting a series of false alarms, thieves broke into the National Gallery in Athens and stole two paintings, Pablo Picasso's 1939 painting "Woman's Head" donated by the artist to the Greeks in 1949 and Piet Mondrian's 1905 "Mill", and one sketch by Italian painter Guglielmo Caccia:
"It all happened in seven minutes," said a police official who declined to be named.

To mislead the guard, the thieves activated the gallery's alarm system several times before breaking into the building at 4:30 a.m. (0230 GMT). The guard turned off the alarm only to later spot one of the thieves through the motion detector.

Before escaping, the thief dropped another 1905 Mondrian painting, the "Landscape," police said. [Reporting by Renee Maltezou, editing by Paul Casciato]
Piet Mondrian's "Mill"
(Photo provided by National Gallery/AP)
Reuters reported that the number of thieves is unknown.

CBC News reported that the stolen artworks were "stripped from their frames":
The museum, which features mostly 19th and 20th century Greek paintings, had just concluded the exhibition Unknown Treasures.  On Monday, it has been scheduled to shut down for an expansion and restoration project. [CBC]
BBC News reported that Picasso donated "Woman's Head" to Greece for "the country's resistance to Nazi Germany." According to BBC, the gallery has not established the value for the stolen artwork but closed its doors on Monday as a result of the burglary.

Mark Durney writes today in Art Theft Central that budget cuts may have affected the effectiveness of museum security.  Mr. Durney has also written of the pattern of museum thefts during the holiday season -- and last Friday, January 6, on the Greek Orthodox calendar was the Theophany, or the Epiphany, the celebration of the Three Kings or Wise Men bearing gifts to the Baby Jesus.

In another example of the vulnerability of a cultural institution, the aging National Gallery in Greece was scheduled for an expansion and renovation, just as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was in 1972 before it was robbed (also on a holiday weekend, Labor Day in September in that case).

We can only hope that the thieves will be unable to sell the paintings on the black market and will return the artworks as in the case reported recently by Lee Moran of The Daily Mail when thieves contacted an art expert to return René Magritte's Olympia stolen from Musée Magritte in Brussels in September 2009.

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