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Are Crime Rings full of Art Lovers?

Words by Rhianne Ward

Photography by Hasadri Freeman

Dating all the way back to the first recorded art heist in 1473, that of Hans Memling’s ‘The Last Judgement’, seized by Polish pirates on its journey to Italy, theft has always been prevalent in the mysterious underbelly of high art. This incredibly valuable work, despite the Italian government’s frustration, remains in the Gdańsk National Museum to this day. More recently, you may have heard about the recovery of a stolen Klimpt painting, which was found by gardeners within a wall, almost comically, in the same gallery from which it had disappeared more than two decades earlier. The late manager of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, Stephano Fugazza, actually wrote about his desire to fake the theft of ‘Portrait of a Lady’ in order to garner public attention. Moreover, police are currently investigating his widow for housing stolen goods, emphasizing that the details surrounding this mysterious case may never come to light. However, we can say, that regardless of his true intentions, the theft and subsequent rediscovery of this artwork has increased both the value of the painting, at a colossal $66 million, and the prestige of the museum itself. 

As is often the case with art theft, considering that roughly 85-90% of stolen artwork is never actually recovered, the case of ‘Portrait of a lady’ asks more questions than it can provide answers. Does stealing a painting make it more valuable? Certainly, since if the painting had never been found it would have been in good company. Among others, Vermeer’s ‘The concert’ was taken in 2015 during the infamous Gardner heist and is estimated to be worth $250 million, making it the most valuable stolen artwork in the world. When discussing stolen art, we cannot overlook the huge impact that the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa had on the art world. Plunging DaVinci’s masterpiece into the cultural zeitgeist, its theft unintentionally rendered it the most famous painting in the world, now estimated to be worth $850 million. 

The value of paintings is not always inherent. As shown by the theft of the ‘Mona Lisa’ and the ‘Portrait of a Lady’, it is largely based on a series of cultural shifts and prejudices. At the end of the day, people in influential positions tell us what art is worth, which in turn dictates what people and institutions are willing to pay. I feel that this begs the question, why do criminals even want to steal art? A large proportion of art crime is perpetrated by organized crime rings, and the works themselves are subsequently used as currency in illegal trade, such as drug trafficking. I wonder how, given that often they cannot resell without fear of attracting the eye of law enforcement, these criminals assign any value to the things they take. If we accept as a romanticized Hollywood fallacy the idea of stolen art being displayed as a power symbol above the mantel of some mafia boss, then we must question their motives. Furthermore, if we take for granted that people involved in crime rings who care deeply about arts and culture are the exception, not the rule, must we presume then that art theft is just theft for theft’s sake? 

I would argue that art’s entire worth is defined by its cultural capital. So by definition, the act of hiding it away from the gaze of those who assign it this value in the first place, meaning it cannot be bought and sold freely among art lovers, negates any real monetary value it ever had. Ultimately the question is: what separates a stolen Picasso from a piece of old fabric covered in paint?