Art is expensive. This we know. With over $1.1 billion dollars earned by Sotheby’s and Christie’s during this fall’s round of auctions, even the most moral of art acolytes would acknowledge a fleeting urge to beg, borrow, and steal.
Some statistics to put this in perspective:
- Current unemployment rate within the United States – 9.1%.
- Median household income – $50,221.
- Lot price for Jackson Pollack’s No. 5 (1948) – $156.8 million dollars.
Draw your own conclusions.
In the midst of a global economic downturn, the art world seems to relish the insularity of its markets. With Rothko’s clocking in at $79.1 million dollars, the temptation to create a stroke-for-stroke rendition in your tenement-style studio apartment, or walk away with a Giacometti from the MoMA, is understandable. Granted, you might not get too far before alarms start ringing, or police start calling. But there’s always the Charlie Rose interview and fifteen minutes of media coverage to look forward to.
Presenting three cases of art fraud…when desperate times call for desperate measures.
German Forgers Steal Your Wallet And Help You Look For It
Four German citizens found themselves indicted late last month for creating, selling, and circulating over 50 forged paintings from artists Max Ernst to Andre Derain, and dozens in between. Wolfgang Beltracci — a smiling charmer channeling Mickey Rourke in court – led the criminal conspiracy, dictating production and sales of faux-masterworks. The victims? Some of the most prestigious international collections, including actor Steve Martin, who bought Heinrich Campendonk’s Landscape With Horses for $850,000–or so he thought.
In all, the forgers accumulated over fourteen million dollars in ill-gotten gains over a period of ten years.
According to the UK’s Independent, the losses inflicted on the art world are estimated at over $47 million dollars. Statues of limitations upheld by the German regional court prevent further investigation of the forty-odd false works still in circulation. Even though there might be a phony Ernst hanging on a museum wall near you, German officials are no longer seeking it out.
Lesson learned for the art establishment? Check your sources. The forgers’ sentences? Twenty-one months to six years. Because no one messes with The Father of the Bride.
Who’s Burgled The Rembrandt?
On the night of March 18, 1990, just hours after the end of Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities, two art crooks in policemen’s clothing appeared at the doors of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the historic home and collection of a former millionairess. Guarding this landmark chock-full of priceless artifacts? A twenty-three year old Berklee music student. Time required to handcuff the student and swindle the museum? Eighty-one minutes, with only empty frames and shards of glass to console museum administrators the following morning. Missing? three Rembrandts – one of which, the artist’s only seascape – a Vermeer, five Degas sketches, and a heaping load of objets d’art. Total take? $500 million–still the largest art heist in history.
More than two decades later, the trail of clues has long gone cold. And the roster of potential suspects has been revised many a time – a Boston-based mob boss, the Irish Republican Army, and a notorious cat burglar (who has since been paroled). Even if the perpetrators are found, statutes of limitation prevent prosecution, though international investigations are ongoing. If you’re better at sleuthing than stealing, figure out this caper and get a piece of the museum’s $5 million dollar reward for information leading to recovery of the art.
Oh Mona, Where Art Thou?
Things that never fail to surprise: the actual size of the Mona Lisa – small-ish, but nonetheless stunning – and the sheer idiocy inherent to most thievery. Case in point, Vincenzo Peruggia’s short-lived swipe of the Da Vinci masterpiece. That is, the single most iconic example of Renaissance portraiture, all affiliation with Dan Brown notwithstanding.
The year was 1911. Peruggia, an employee at the Louvre, hid overnight in a crevice of the Salon Carre, where the Mona Lisa was on display. Knocking the painting off the wall, he smuggled the painting through the front doors underneath his smock. After stashing it in his closet for two years, the urge to let the cat out of the bag was all too much. He tried to sell it to a prominent gallery director in Florence, and was immediately apprehended by the police. His motive: patriotism, returning the prized Mona to her homeland and sticking it to Napoleon, who stole the painting for France during his plot to take over the world.
For his trouble, Peruggia earned six months in prison. His legacy: the top slot on Time magazine’s Top 10 Bandits shortlist, and the collective eye-rolling of history buffs worldwide. He died in 1925, a French paint salesman. Oh, the irony.
All this crime make you nervous? Making the transition from illegally downloading music to buying songs from Apple on iTunes? There’s always The Bare Square Store. Buy art from emerging artists, and keep your conscience, and your rap sheet, clean.
- Tom McKee & James Wallace