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It Takes a Thief - Perspectives No. 394

It Takes a Thief

Perspectives No. 394

Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet
Impression, Sunrise          1872          Claude Monet

   It is a romantic notion to think that the theft of a painting is the result of a deep longing to personally possess the beauty of an otherwise unattainable unique work of art—deranged though that may be. The reality, of course, is much more mundane. Putting aside the glamorous fictions perpetuated by movies and television (The Thomas Crowne Affair, for example), art thefts are typically carried out for the perceived payoff they will command. Although it is estimated that only about 1.5 percent of art theft cases are resolved with the art recovered and the thieves prosecuted*, it is also uncommon for criminals to actually profit from their art thefts. Despite popular cultural myth, art robberies are generally not carried out by criminal geniuses.

   Take, for instance, the case of the robbery of the Musee Marmottan in Paris in 1985. The theft of nine valuable impressionist paintings including the iconic, Impression, Sunrise by Monet, is a prime example of an ill-conceived plan.

   The robbery was committed by a Japanese gangster who had spent time in a French prison for selling heroin. While incarcerated, he came to know two other prisoners. Together they planned and pulled off the heist. Behind the theft may have been the perceived opportunity provided by the lenient two-year statute of limitations in Japan on recovering stolen art from a purchaser who did not know it was stolen. (Since then, Japan has signed onto the UNESCO Convention on the Prevention of the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.)

   Very famous art is usually too famous to easily sell, and unless the thief has a collector signed up beforehand, it is doubtful they will be able to find one for the hot property after the robbery. In the case of the Marmottan paintings, they were too hot for even the Japanese market at the time. The paintings were ultimately recovered in the town of Porto-Vecchio in southern Corsica. A tip was given to police that they were being offered for sale to Japanese art dealers, but it isn’t known if they ever actually traveled to Japan.

   Another recourse sometimes taken by the desperate art thief is to hold the work for ransom, referred to as “artnapping”, in the hopes that either the victim or the insurance company will pay. Historically, this most often leads to police notification and the foiling of the attempted payoff. Authorities have to guard against the very real possibility the the thieves will destroy the artwork as a last resort when intervening.

   We were lucky to have visited the Marmottan last fall and to see Impression, Sunrise—the painting from which the Impressionist movement drew its name—along with the other recovered works. Fortunate for all of us, none of the nine paintings were severely damaged. The other paintings stolen were:  Camille Monet and Cousin on the Beach at Trouville, Portrait of Jean Monet, Portrait of Poly, Fisherman of Belle-Isle and Field of Tulips in Holland—all by Monet; Bather Sitting on a Rock and Portrait of Monet by Renoir; Young Woman at the Ball by Morisot; and, Portrait of Monet by Naruse.

* Noah Charney, American Art Historian and Founder of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art 




Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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Photograph of John Hulsey and Ann Trusty in Glacier National Park
We are artists, authors and teachers with over 40 years of experience in painting the world's beautiful places. We created The Artist's Road in order to share our knowledge and experiences with you, and create a community of like-minded individuals.  You can learn more about us and see our original paintings by clicking on the links below.
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