An arrest was made this summer of a Romanian thief who seems to have been behind the heist of artworks, including paintings by Matisse, from the Kunsthal Museum in the Netherlands about a year ago. The arrest would have made small headlines, but for the fact that the mother of the thief claims to have burned at least one of the stolen paintings after her son’s arrest, in an attempt to destroy evidence and help him avoid prison. Unfortunately, the mother’s statement is believable, as she described accurately the way an oil painting on canvas would have burned in her oven (“like tissues”), and charred fragments of canvas with paint on them, that could match the stolen Matisse, were found just where she said they would be.
This is not the first time that a foolish and ignorant mother has made a son’s art theft crime far worse by destroying the stolen art. The mother of Swiss waiter and art kleptomaniac Stephane Breitweiser, who stole over one-hundred paintings and kept every one, never attempting to sell them but rather adding to a compulsive private art collection, destroyed a number of the stolen works when her son was arrested. She threw some in a canal, and shoved others down her garbage disposal. When her son heard this, he tried to kill himself, so distraught was he at the grotesque stupidity of destroying art—art that he loved and cherished, albeit stole.
There are almost no known cases in the history of art theft of thieves knowingly destroying stolen art, even when it seemed clear that they did not know how to profit from it. In the majority of known cases, thieves in such a situation have simply abandoned the stolen art, rather than destroy it—for destroying benefits no one, hurts everyone, and turns a kidnapping into a murder. This was the case for the 2004 Munch Museum theft—when thieves failed to find a buyer, and failed to secure a ransom for the stolen Munch paintings, including a version of The Scream, they simply abandoned the works in a parked car on a farm outside of Oslo. Art is sometimes damaged or destroyed inadvertently—the best information to date on the stolen Caravaggio Palermo Nativity, taken from the church of San Lorenzo in Palermo by members of Cosa Nostra in 1969 (the theft of which prompted the foundation of the world’s first art police unit, the Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, in Italy), is that the Caravaggio was irrevocably damaged in an earthquake and subsequently fed to pigs, to destroy the evidence. But such stories are rare indeed, thank goodness.
Noah Charney holds Masters degrees in art history from The Courtauld Institute and University of Cambridge, and a PhD from University of Ljubljana. He is Adjunct Professor of Art History at the American University of Rome, a Visiting Lecturer for Brown University abroad programs, and is the founder of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, a non-profit research group on issues of art crimes. Charney is the author of numerous academic and popular articles, including a regular column in ArtInfo called “The Secret History of Art” and a weekly interview series in The Daily Beast called “How I Write.” His first novel, The Art Thief (Atria 2007), is currently translated into seventeen languages and is a best seller in five countries. He is the editor of an academic essay collection entitled Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World (Praeger 2009) and the Museum Time series of guides to museums in Spain (Planeta 2010). His is author of a critically acclaimed work of non-fiction, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True History of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece (PublicAffairs 2011), which is a best seller in two countries. His latest book is The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World’s Most Famous Painting (ARCA Publications 2011). Upcoming books include The Book of Forgery (Phaidon 2014), The Invention of Art (Norton 2015), and an as yet untitled edited collection of essays on art crime (Palgrave 2014).
Design for this issue and all issues of The Journal of Art Crime is the work of Urška Charney. Here's a link to ARCA's website on The Journal of Art Crime (includes Table of Contents for previous issues).