Aug 7, 2007

More on the Nice Thefts


Today Molly Moore of the Washington Post has more details on Sunday's theft of four works in Nice. Traditionally most French museums are free on the first Sunday of the month, and such was the case on Sunday. The thieves ordered the guards to lie down on the floor at gunpoint. They stuffed the 4 works by Monet, Sisley, and Bruegel in their bags and left--two on a motorcycle and three in a car. It seems they were after a fifth work but left it behind because they couldn't fit it in their bag. The works by Monet and Sisley were on loan from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. One of the works taken is pictured above, Jan Bruegel the Elder's Allegory of the Earth

Patricia Grimaud, the deputy curator said "Who could expect to be held up in broad daylight like that?... They were really bold and quick, it took them only 10 minutes. I can't find the right words to describe what they did."

Moore rightly points out that "it has become virtually impossible to sell the better-known stolen pieces on the public art market." But why steal the works if there is no market? Speculation abounds that there must be some kind of market motivating these thefts. It could be a real-life Dr. No, organized criminals could be using the works as collateral, they may be hoping to ransom the works back, or the thieves may not have known how difficult the works are to sell.

As I said yesterday, the Monet and Sisley paintings had been stolen in 1999 and quickly recovered. The NY Times reports the Sisley may have been stolen in 1978 as well. Perhaps the Musee des beaux artes in Nice has some security problems?

Unfortunately the criminal and civil law does a poor job of preventing art theft. The risk of jail time is much lower than for other crimes like kidnapping or other armed robberies. The cost/benefit calculus favors art thieves in many cases as works by important artists will remain extremely valuable and there is no special legal status for important artworks. The law looks on them just like any other commodity.
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