December 24, 2010

Exclusive Update on the Madrid Picasso Theft

On 29 November 2010, thieves stole a truck which was carrying what sources claimed was 28 artworks by the likes of Picasso, Chillida, Tapies, and Botero, worth at least 5 million euros. Three hooded men stole the parked truck from a warehouse in an industrial zone in Getafe, outside Madrid. The works were en route back to six galleries in Madrid and Barcelona, after having been on loan for display in Germany. The truck was not armored. It was recovered, empty, by police on 30 November 2010.

But ARCA can report exclusively thanks to knowledgeable sources in Madrid a series of different details and new facts related to the case.

Police in Madrid confirmed that there were in fact 35 works stolen, not 28. 34 of them have been recovered. The last work was not discovered along with the others, and no information as to its whereabouts has risen. Initial reports from Spain, after the air cleared on over-enthusiastic reports as to the value of the stolen art (originally touted by the media at 5 million euros), claimed that the 28 stolen works were valued at 2.7 million. It turns out that the media reports were accurate, despite though through a lucky estimate. The new tally of 35 stolen works are now valued by Spanish police at 5 million euros.

The police are keeping their investigation to themselves, choosing not to inform the media as they are still hunting for the thieves.

There was some concern that the sculptures stolen, among them a work in iron and bronze by Eduardo Chillida, might have been destined for the scrapyard. A string of theft in 2005 of objects, from artworks to garden ornaments, were disappearing from across England. The theme was that the objects were made of bronze or copper, the prices for which had quadrupled in the preceding months due to a shortage emerging from mines, particularly in China. Henry Moore’s Reclining Nude, a ten-ton abstract bronze sculpture, was stolen by local gypsies from the Henry Moore Estate in Hertfordshire, England in 2005, and has never been recovered—it is feared that it was chopped into pieces, melted, and sold for scrap bronze, perhaps for as little as 2500 pounds, when as an artwork it was insured at 10 million. Thieves would not be distraught by having “lost out” on 10 million—it would of course be all but impossible to shop, transport, and cash in on a ten-ton sculpture. Thieves would rather consider that they had “worked” (as in, stolen) for about a half an hour, and came away with 2500 pounds. This rash of thefts continued, and in locations as remote as Slovenia bronze objects and sculptures were stolen, only to be found sliced into segments, destined for the smelter. This technique, grotesque as it is, benefits the criminals in that it destroys any traceable evidence of the stolen object, while still allowing them to cash in, for however small a fraction of the total value. When gold sculptures by Bill Reid were stolen from the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver in 2008, it was feared that the gold would be sold for scrap value—for this reason a reward was offered for the recovery of the sculptures, set at a higher value than the scrap metal, in an effort to delay the melting of the works. The ploy in that case worked out, as police captured a gang of jewelry thieves linked to international organized crime syndicates, and recovered the works.

Last month, 200 Spanish policemen raided a slum in southern Madrid, and arrested a slew of drug dealers and Romanian gypsies working for various criminal gangs. The target of the raid was several tons of copper, stolen from an AVE high-speed train.

The transport company responsible for the truck from which the art was stolen has never had an incident of this type in the last two decades, further suggesting a one-off inside contact aiding the thieves. Details of the recovery of the 34 stolen artworks have not been released, but the Madrid police said that they recovered the works when the Chillida sculpture was offered to a scrap metal merchant for 30 euros.