March 20, 2014

Essay: Why Steal a Rembrandt if They are so Difficult to Sell?

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA's CEO

French Police from the Criminal Brigade of the Judicial Police Nice and the central office of Cultural Property (OCBC) happily announced the recovery of the painting "Child with a Soap Bubble" attributed to Rembrandt yesterday.  While everyone knows that Rembrandt van Rijn was the master of the dramatic contrast of light and dark known as Chiaroscuro and unquestionably one of the world’s most beloved artists, no one quite knows why actual Rembrandt's paintings or those thought to be by Rembrandt, are repeatedly the target of thieves.

Scholars debate what was beneath his impetus to create illuminated figures that emerge from darkness.  Law enforcement officers instead question why more than 80 of Rembrandt’s paintings have been stolen over the last 100 years.  Here's a list of a six of the more disturbing cases.
Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee was painted in 1633.  The painting is the master’s singular known seascape and was snatched from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Boston, Massachusetts, United States on March 18, 1990. During this exceptionally costly heist a total of three Rembrandt's were taken. 

A 1634 Rembrandt self portrait etching, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, was also stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum years earlier in 1970.  The painting had been snatched from the museum by a group of not-so-smart teenagers who created a diversion in the gallery by smashing a light bulb to make a loud noise. When the guard's attention was diverted, one of the culprits left with the small image. Unsellable, it was quickly recovered. 

Portrait of Jacob III de Gheyn

Portrait of Jacob III de Gheyn – A painting given the horrible moniker the “Takeaway Rembrandt” because it has been stolen four times since 1966.   Each time, the painting was abandoned anonymously making an indisputable statement that stolen paintings by the master are too hard to fence.  The last time this portrait was stolen thieves broke in through a seldom-used door leading into the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London.  The portrait was recovered on October 8, 1986, after being found abandoned on a luggage rack in a Münster, Germany train station.

Stolen two times in ten years, police last recovered Portrait of the Father on March 18, 2013 in the Serbian town of Sremeska Mitrovica, 40 kilometers south of the city of Novi Sad.  The portrait, attributed to Rembrandt and valued at almost $4 million had been stolen by two armed robbers who tied up a guard at the Novi Sad City Museum, making off with the Rembrandt and three other paintings.
Portrait of the Father

The second painting in a span of months to be recovered in Serbia, it seemed to prove that gangsters in the former Yugoslavia have no better luck fencing hot Rembrandts than their North American counterparts. Four accomplices were arrested as a result of the police blitz.

In December 2000 a small self-portrait, one of only five artworks carried out by Rembrandt on copper, was stolen during an spectacular armed robbery from the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.  During the heist, assailants ordered museum patrons to the floor and two car bombs were detonated on roads leading to the museum thereby allowing the thieves to make off with the Rembrandt and an additional two Renoir paintings.  All three paintings were recovered, the Rembrandt during a multinational law enforcement sting operation in Copenhagen in 2005. 
Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak

In an equally violent episode, two men strolled into the Boston Museum of Fine Arts around noon on April 14, 1975 and stole Rembrandt's portrait of Elizabeth Van Rijn titled Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak snatching it from a wall of on the second-floor.  When a guard intervened they pistol-whipped him and escaped out a rear door fleeing via a get-away car.  To add emphasis to their not to be messed with persona, the assailants fired three shots to discourage pursuit. Nine months later, notorious Boston-area art thief, Myles J. Connor Jr., used the return of this painting as a successful bargaining chip in a plea deal for another art heist and bail jumping in Maine leaving one to ponder if these thefts, when used to make a quick million, serve as a means to avoid longer prison sentences if caught for other offenses. 

**Image credits for this article include the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Wikipedia, Novi Sad City Museum, and Getty Images.