September 2, 2013

Museum van Bommel van Dam Art Theft: A Perspective on the stolen and recovered paintings and how the ALR distributes information

www.wikicollecting.com:
 'R69-32' (left) and the completelydifferent 'R69-39' (right) 
In August, the ARCA blog reported the recovery of paintings stolen five months earlier. In this post, one of this year's ARCA student provides background on the theft.

by Jacobiene Kuijpers

At five in the early morning of 22 March 2013, the Dutch Museum van Bommel van Dam was robbed. Two hooded thieves forced open the entrance door and took three papier-maché reliefs by the Dutch artist Jan Schoonhoven and a canvas by Tomas Rajlich. They managed to leave the museum and drive away by car before the police arrived. All of the stolen works were part of the Manders Collection, a private art collection that was currently exhibited in the museum. The museum director contacted Art Loss Register directly to report the theft and spread images of the works over the internet and television to get tips for the police investigation.

All of the artworks are predominantly white and show geometric structures. Schoonhoven was a renowned minimalist artist, part of the ZERO network, and has works of art in important collections such as the MoMA. Recently, Schoonhoven is seen as a rising star and the value of his works has gone up, which was clearly visible in a sale at Christie’s Amsterdam last October, where some works were hammered for almost double the estimate.[1] The stolen works by Schoonhoven were by far the most valuable works of art of the entire Manders Collection. The Rajlich painting is similar in representation and was hung in the same corner as the Schoonhovens -- one may suggest the thieves thought the works were all by the same artist.

On June 27, Sotheby’s London sold a work by Schoonhoven, titled R69-39, via the Amsterdam offices where this relief was brought before the end of April. Sotheby’s has no salesroom in Amsterdam anymore, thus the work was put up for the London auction, where its provenance mentioned it was part of an inheritance and the work was directly transferred from the artist to the first owner.[2] In the image printed in the auction catalogue, the artwork appeared identical to the stolen Schoonhoven with the title R69-32, except that the work was turned on its side. This similarity made the ALR alert the auction house that the work possibly represented a stolen work in their database. Sotheby’s checked this and replied that the title on the back of the work didn’t match the ALR record. No further measures were taken on both ends.

The work was sold to two galleries in Amsterdam and London who specialize in the ZERO network and often collaborate in acquisitions. When the Amsterdam gallery owner saw an image of the work for the first time on July 2, he was confused as he had possessed a work with the same title before, and this was not that work. He realized that the artwork was similar to one of the stolen Schoonhovens and contacts the London gallery holder. He expressed his doubts and requested a picture of the back of the painting, which he compared to a picture of the stolen work. He claimed it was fairly obvious the number 2 was changed into a 9, stickers and labels were removed, but the signature and title were identical.[3] Sotheby’s halted the sale and contacted the police.

In Amsterdam, investigations start to find the man who brought the work to Sotheby’s. At the beginning of August, private detective Arthur Brand was contacted by this man, who claimed he bought the three stolen Schoonhoven reliefs for 100 euros and showed a receipt of the transaction. Brand convinced the man to bring the two works he still had to the police. On August 14th the man walked into an Amsterdam police office holding a plastic bag with the two reliefs and was arrested immediately. The following day the director of the museum happily confirmed the identity of the artworks. The painting by Rajlich remains missing.

The director of the Museum van Bommel van Dam raised an interesting point in his commentary on the Sotheby’s sale of the stolen artwork. He points out that the alerts from the ALR are only directed towards the auction houses and dealers, and how it would be more helpful if these alerts were more public.[4] The museum or the private collector could have aided in the identification of the piece, which would have made the police intervene before the work was put up for auction.

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