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October 8, 2011

Lessons from Sandy Nairne's book, "Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners": Anti-gang police arrest 3 in Paris museum theft and stolen Picasso paintings from Zurich recovered in Serbia

Interior view of Paris museum (photo by Catherine Sezgin)
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, Editor

Here's a link to ArtInfo's summary of the arrest of three people arrested for the theft at Paris' Modern Art Museum. The story reminds me of Sandy Nairne's depiction of an art theft in his book, Art Theft and The Case of the Stolen Turners. Organized crime was involved and the presence of a specialized police group in Paris seems to indicate professional criminals planned the robbery of the Paris museum. In the case of the stolen Turner paintings, the thieves gave the paintings to a 'handler' who passed the artwork on. Years passed before the Tate was able to negotiate a reward for the return of the paintings.

Nairne, now director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, himself writes in his introduction: "... the loss of the two late Turner paintings in Frankfurt in 1994 appears as part of a sequence that includes the attack on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, the thefts of versions of The Scream in Oslo in 1994 and 2004, the loss of Cellini's Saliera in Vienna in 2003 and the theft of of works by Matisse, Picasso and others from the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris in May 2010."

As Nairne outlines in his book, the Tate in London loans two paintings by J. M. W. Turner (then valued at 24 million pounds and insured to travel) to a public gallery in Frankfurt in 1994 on July 28.  The front entrance door of the Kunsthalle had been locked by the night security guard at 10.10 p.m. the previous night after the last of the evening visitors had departed'.  The guard was attacked and then tied up in a cleaning cupboard. Nairne explains how it happened:

"The thieves had entered the gallery toward the end of the day, staying behind after hours and overcoming the night guard.  But how did they get out again? It seemed by using the guard's keys, unlocking the back entrance area and opening the big doors, so gaining access to the goods lift and from there to the loading bay.  This might have been fairly straightforward, but crucially, it was possible only with knowledge of the security system and the internal layout to execute the operation swiftly.  While removing the paintings, the three men (two thieves and the waiting driver as it later emerged) would have been listening to the guard's radio, connection to Eufinger's [a Frankfurt security firm] headquarters.  This was their way of knowing whether any suspicions had been aroused."

In both the museum thefts in 1972 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and in 2010 at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, the thief or thieves had knowledge of the security systems' vulnerabilities -- in Montreal the repair of a skylight had disabled the alarm and in Paris the security system was awaiting the delivery of a part. Three security guards were alleged to have been on duty the night of the theft in Paris but nothing in the press has explained the whereabouts of these guardians while the small gallery was being robbed.

The initial investigation in Frankfurt, Nairne writes, was conducted by the Franfurt-am--Main Organized Crime Squad.  "After setting up a reconstruction, collecting evidence from the Schirn Kunsthalle staff and from witnesses that evening, the Squad eventually got to the point of being able to make arrests," Nairne writes (page 53).  "Over a period of time they arrested nine suspects, only some of whom they could actually connect with the emerging evidence."

Nairne quotes Jurek "Rocky" Rokosynski, a (London) Metropolitan Police undercover officer's recollections:
"The thieves and the handler were arrested soon afterwards.... Apparently they had an alibi for the actual time of the robbery.... But the clock was hours out of time, and only years afterwards, when the clock was checked against the actual time of the theft, did the truth emerge.... The police had their thumb prints or partial prints right from the start, because they had left them at the Schirn.  There was also a third person, a 'handler'. He was the one that the BKA put an undercover agent onto, to try and obtain the paintings, but each time he was arrested he would keep his mouth shut and would have to be released again."
The partial prints led police to the red light district of Frankfurt and into the criminal underworld.  Rocky recalls: "The van that was used linked to a driving license itself linked to one of the red light district establishments, run by Serbs. But in a police interview, if they don't have to say anything, they just don't say a thing."

It took the Tate over a decade to negotiate the return of the paintings.  You can read the rest of Sandy Nairne's fascinating book to find out how the paintings came home.

In other news, "Swiss Locate 2 Stolen Picassos" from Zurich? Where? Serbia.  In the 1960s it was the Corsican mob stealing paintings in the South of France.  Are we now seeing evidence of Serbian organized crime either commissioning or purchasing stolen art?