15-12 Story 1: Stolen Art – Getting away with millions!

 

Synopsis: This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Gardner Museum heist of millions of dollars in paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and others. Nobody knows who took the paintings, but our guest has a theory. We also talk to an art expert and an art show coordinator about what happens to stolen art, how art is determined to be genuine, and how to avoid scams if you’re buying or selling art and antiques.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Stephen Kurkjian, journalist and author of the book, “Master Thieves: The Boston gangsters who pulled off the world’s greatest art heist”; Jane C.H. Jacob, art consultant, president of Jacob Fine Art, Oak Park, IL; Scott Diament, president & CEO of the Palm Beach Show Group.

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Stolen Art – Getting away with millions!

Gary Price:  This year marks the 25th anniversary of the art theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The facts of the case are that on the evening of March 18, 1990, two men pulled up next to the museum building and, dressed as police officers, managed to persuade the night watchman to let them in. The robbers tied up both of the museum guards and proceeded to steal several Rembrandt works, including “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” – the only seascape Rembrandt ever painted; Vermeer’s “The Concert;” five works on paper by Edgar Degas; Manet’s “Chez Tortoni; several other pictures and a finial from the pole of a Napoleonic silk flag. No one has ever been charged with the robbery and none of the works have been found. The mystery surrounding the heist has captured the imagination of a number of writers, including Stephen Kurkjian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Boston Globe and author of “Master Thieves: The Boston gangsters who pulled off the world’s greatest art heist.” Kurkjian says that the security in the building at the time was not what you’d expect for an institution housing that kind of art…

Stephen Kurkjian:  In the five or seven years before, artwork had risen in value dramatically. The museum at the time was run by a group of men who were not dedicated to fundraising or capital campaign to improve the security and the look of the museum, the ventilation system, they just were not keeping up. The security chief at the time had sent several times requests to the board and the director at the time asking for infusion of capital to improve security. But those requests were not met with the same sense of urgency that he had sent them out

Price: In addition, the watchmen were not pros…they were two young men paid minimum wage. But were the robbers pros themselves? Kurkjian says that it’s not known for sure, but the disguises were amateurish and the actual removal of some of the art pointed to robbers who were not sophisticated art thieves…

Kurkjian: They cut them out of their frames. The two major Rembrandts that were stolen out of the Dutch room were cut out of their frames. And that in itself is going to cause damage, hopefully not irreparable, but damage to the artwork. So if someone had planned this crime to steal such pieces of art that they could not live without, I doubt very much that thjey would have put in place thieves who would be cutting masterpieces out of their frames

Price:In his book, Kurkjian takes the reader on a tour of the Boston underworld of organized crime, street thugs and other shady characters who, because of their reputations or a tip from a cohort or family member, had some connection to the stolen art. Reporter Tom Mashberg, formerly of the Boston Herald, wrote extensively about the heist and about how he was taken to a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, by an antiques dealer and petty crook named William Youngworth to see the stolen art. Kurkjian says that in the dark room holding only a flashlight, Mashberg saw Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” unfurled before him…

Kurkjian: Within five feet of Tom, unfurled, and that’s the problem – that he unfurled it in Tom’s language – which means he held it above his head and it sort of came down to the floor. And there was, as Tom saw it, brushstrokes, the signature of Rembrandt. He does say he only kept the flashlight on it for a small amount of time, 10 seconds, lets say. But Tom saw what he saw was cracks on the canvas. And my sense of this is, is not for what Tom saw or didn’t see. My sense is it had to be the original, because there is no way that within the short period of time that Youngworth and Mashberg knew each other. Let’s say it was two or three weeks, but it wasn’t beyond that, that Youngworth would have been able to get a replica of this Rembrandt.

Price: Part of the deal he made with Youngworth was that Mashberg wouldn’t write a word about what he’d seen for a week so the paintings could be moved to another location. Kurkjian says that later, Youngworth provided some paint chips, purportedly from the Rembrandt, but those turned out not to be from that painting and cast doubt on Youngworth’s ability to produce the artwork. So who did steal the artwork, and where did it go? Kurkjian has his theory and his suspects but that’s part of the mystery and surprise in his book. What he will say is that he thinks that the reason they were taken was for a “ransom” of sorts…

Kurkjian: My sense is it wasn’t the beauty, the majesty or the masterpiece that they were going for. They were going for any of numerous masterpieces, but they wanted them not for their intrinsic value or the beauty of their art, but as pieces that they could then trade back to the museum or to the authorities for something that they were looking for. Whether it was reward money or, as my reporting found, a motive to get someone out of jail, that in the end was their goal.

Price: It hasn’t worked, and Kurkjian says that the FBI wouldn’t fall for that kind of scheme anyway. So what can happen to art work – the Gardner pieces or any other of the six-billion dollars a year in art – when it’s stolen? We asked Jane C. H. Jacob, president of Jacob Fine Art in Oak Park, Illinois. Jacob says that the sale of stolen artwork is a risky and difficult business…

Jane Jacob: There cannot be a legal venue that it could be sold in. So other museums knowingly would never touch it, scrupulous collectors would never touch it, nor would an auction house or dealer touch it. So that leads us to the conclusion that the only market for such works would be the black market. There are all kinds of venues in that area –there are known drug lords that have purchased things, art has long been used for money laundering. You have probably heard the statistic that art crime is second only to gun running and drug trafficking and it’s often tied to those activities. So therefore what’s the marketability? It’s the black market.

Price: So if a painting that’s been stolen resurfaces, how do you know it’s the real thing and not a forgery? Jacob says that the authentication process begins with a “three-legged stool” of investigation…

Jacob: The connoisseurship that is taken into consideration — that is a visual inspection. Scholarship really relates to those that have spent their lifetimes studying such a work, such an artist or a school of art that’s related to that work. And finally forensic science comes into play. The first step is really the visual inspection of the work. So there’s stylistic mechanisms that are taken into consideration, there is paint, there’s materials, there is history, there is age of the canvas, the stretchers, you know all of the things that come into play when a work of art is created.

Price: She says that art is stolen for any number of reasons, but something that can touch anyone with artwork to sell is “consignment fraud”…

Jacob: Where people take their works of art to a gallery, or a dealer, a private dealer, and consign them and then they never see a return on their consignment. But the works are sold and they travel through lots of layers of people before they’re found. I recently read an article where in five months a work of art passed through five dealers. And it was valued at $75,000, and when it finally sold through the dealer five months later it sold for $275. There are pieces that end up in galleries, there are pieces that end up auction houses, there are pieces that certainly end up in museums and private collections. So this conference really does focus on the problem, but we want to also think about what are some of the solutions that we might go into the future thinking about.

Price: Jacob says that art theft and forgery are big business and aren’t going away anytime soon. That’s why she’s co-organizing the Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Symposium at New York University in June. It’s where experts in the fields of forensics, law enforcement, art history, and other major players in the art field can discuss what needs to be done to stem the tide of these crimes…

Jacob: The conference itself is really meant to be a policy discussion. We understand that this art crime is not going away – either theft or spoliation, or looting, or fakes and forgeries – but what can we do about it? What are some of the new things that we can think about? Because the FBI has long touted the six-billion dollar for stolen works every year, but that’s not Nazi’s looted works, it’s happening on an annual basis.

Price: If you are in the market for buying or selling a painting, antique jewelry or other art object, how do you know if the people you are dealing with are reputable and the art is authentic and fairly priced? Scott Diament is president and CEO of the Palm Beach Show Group, which produces art, antique and jewelry shows around the country. This is where people of all income levels can see items for sale that range from a few hundred dollars into the millions. He says that it’s not always possible for a dealer to get the complete ownership timeline – or “provenance” – of a painting or art object. Because of holes in the piece’s history, he says to be sure you get assurances in writing from the seller…

Scott Diament: I spend a lot of time and energy and effort selecting – vetting if you may – the dealers that participate in my events. And I would vouch that the dealers that are participating in my events are ethical dealers and dealers that are dealing correctly. But with that said, again there is a near impossibility that any dealer in the world, if they have any amount of items in their inventory, could bet their life that one of those items’ title was not correct on it. So it’s again wise when you select a dealer to do business with, you make sure that you get it in writing that to the dealer’s knowledge and belief these items, and that he’s passing good title or she’s passing good title on, but that they’ll stand behind the items. So the chain of standing behind an item is actually far more important than someone being able to say, “no, I know 1000% that this item made it to this place and this point in time and has no question to it.”

Price: Diament says that the exhibitors at shows as well as gallery owners should not dissuade a customer from asking questions about an art piece – or about themselves as sellers…

Diament: They’re experts in their field, and the ability to interact and ask questions to experts…whatever the question is, there is no question that should not be asked – so from what is the price of this item? What is this item made out of? Who wore this item? Do you have any provenance information on this item? I mean, until you familiarize yourself with the things that you like, so if you’ve never been before and you don’t even know what you like, this is the perfect way to experience it – shows and fairs. Because if you’re looking at a piece of Roman glass, and you could say that’s about 2,000 years old, you could ask questions like “was this broken and put back together? What is typical for these types of items? What kind of restoration was done on these items? And could you tell me something about the price range on this item? And then, what is the price range for items like this item?”

Price: The Gardner Museum is still looking for its stolen masterpieces, and are hoping the five-million dollar reward and the promise not to prosecute anyone will eventually bring these pieces back, but after 25 years nothing new has come to light. Stephen Kurkjian says that bringing the cause to social media – “crowdsourcing” — might just jog someone’s memory and help recover the art for all of us to enjoy. He also wants official local leaders – political, business, religious, and celebrities from the entertainment and sports worlds – to stand in front of the empty frames of those masterpieces in the museum and call on the public for their help…

Kurkjian: This is our loss, this is a public loss. It’s a loss to the Commonwealth. And I think to have that message replicated through social media is how crowdsourcing comes into it. But let Boston be reminded as we call ourselves a world-class city, as we call ourselves still recovering from, but on it’s feet in fighting back, from the Marathon Bombing. As we yearn to become an Olympic city, let us not forget the loss of these masterpieces.

Price: You can read about the heist and a theory about who is responsible for it in Stephen Kurkjian’s book, “Master Thieves,” available in stores and online. You can also visit him on his facebook page. To find out more about Jane Jacob and her work, log onto JacobFineArt.com. Information on the Art Crime Symposium is on the New York University website at NYU.edu. And for a listing of his art shows around the country, Scott Diament of the Palm Beach Show Group invites listeners to visit his site at PalmBeachShow.com. You can always find out more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net. I’m Gary Price.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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